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Immigration reform pays off

A federal judge recently halted President Barack Obama’s executive action that would make millions of immigrants eligible to live and work legally in the United States, accepting the argument of Texas and other states that reforms will impose a fiscal burden on them.

I disagree. Bringing undocumented workers out of the shadows is not only humane, it’s also good for the economy, and I’m leading a coalition of 14 states and the District of Columbia that filed a brief Thursday with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit explaining why.

When immigrants are able to work legally, their wages increase. For example, the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program offered temporary relief to more than 2 million undocumented youths who came to the United States as children. A survey by the National UnDACAmented Research Project found that almost 60 percent of these “dreamers” obtained new jobs. Their wages increased by more than 240 percent. The Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, had similar effects for 3 million undocumented immigrants.

When wages increase, there are far- reaching positive effects on state and local economies. Tax revenue goes up. Demand for social services decreases.

In my state of Washington, approximately 105,000 people are eligible for deferred immigration action. According to estimates by the Center for American Progress, allowing them to work legally will grow state tax revenue by $57 million over the next five years. For California, the estimated impact is $904 million; Illinois, $347 million; and New York, $184 million. Ironically, even the states warning of “drastic injuries” from the reforms will experience a significant boost. If the estimated 594,000 eligible undocumented immigrants in Texas receive temporary work permits, that state will enjoy a $338 million increase in revenue over the next five years, the center estimates.

On the other side of the ledger, and contrary to the alarm of the states that filed suit, there is no evidence that deferred immigration action will increase state spending on health care or public safety.

On health care, the data show that allowing immigrants to work legally makes it significantly more likely that they will obtain health care through an employer or be able to pay for coverage themselves, rather than rely on emergency rooms.

On public safety, deferred immigration action will be coupled with enforcement efforts focused on deporting those posing the highest threat – including gang members, felons and other serious criminals – and the new immigration reforms specifically exclude those in this category. Applicants will be required to undergo a thorough background check. Furthermore, as law enforcement agencies across the country have pointed out, deferred action will reduce the hesitancy many undocumented residents have about reporting crimes or serving as witnesses.

The data are compelling, but equally compelling is the human impact of reform. This is a moral issue. These changes will lead to better outcomes by keeping families together. It is heartbreaking to hear of parents deported and separated from their U.S. citizen children. The president’s approach will keep more children in the supportive family environments they deserve.

The reality is that our states and nation will benefit from the president’s immigration reforms. Delay is our enemy. Our amicus brief urges the appeals court to allow these reforms to take effect, and I encourage Congress to put divisive politics aside and recognize our shared interest in common-sense immigration reform.

Bob Ferguson is attorney general of the state of Washington.

© 2015, Special to the Washington Post

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