Why Obama’s Decision to Stop Deporting Young Illegal Immigrants is Good News For Cities and Regions

6.21.12 | Last week the Obama Administration announced that it will stop deporting illegal immigrants under 30 who came to the United States as children and allow them to obtain work permits.

For young undocumented activists who’ve been fighting for passage of the Dream Act, Obama’s executive order was a celebratory moment.

“At the beginning I sort of didn’t believe it,” Justino Mora, 22, an undocumented student at UCLA told the LA Times. “But then almost immediately I was overwhelmed by a sense of joy. It gives me hope, it motivates me to continue fighting for my family, for my community.”

Republicans criticized the move as unconstitutional for circumventing Congress who blocked passage of the Dream Act in 2010, and as a short-term solution to the immigration problem. Some  expressed concern that giving work permits to this new group would create additional competition for jobs in the economy.

But some experts say the move should be applauded by U.S. metros, which will increasingly depend on immigrants and their children, including students like Mora, to replace aging workers and fill jobs in the new economy.

One recent study (pdf) of young immigrant adults by Roberto Gonzales found that those who attend college have difficulty completing it without financial aid. And those who get a degree are, obviously, unable to enter the skilled workforce without a social security card.

“I can’t believe this is my life,” one young woman who worked as a maid told Gonzales. “When I was in school I never thought I’d be doing this. …It’s really hard, you know. I make beds, I clean toilets. The sad thing is when I get paid. I work this hard, for nothing.”

These young immigrants, many of whom came to the U.S. as young children, will now be pursuing education and jobs that can benefit the whole economy, says Audrey Singer, writing at the Brooking Institution’s blog this week, especially with the hope of a more permanent pathway to citizenship.

“We have already invested in schooling these folks, let’s give them permanent relief in the form of U.S. citizenship and get a permanent return on our investment,” Singer said.

Singer’s work has examined immigrants’ effect on the labor force. In a recent paper Singer found that immigrants are an important part of the labor force. As of 2010, immigrants were 13% of the total U.S. population but 16% of the labor force, a gap that has been widening since 1990. They were also a big driver in  the growth in the labor force during boom times. Between 2000 and 2005, immigrants contributed to two-thirds of the growth in the labor force. Even since 2005, during this time of slow immigration, high unemployment, and low job growth, the share of growth in the labor force attributed to immigrants remains at  42% of the total.

Singer writes that some demographers are predicting that immigrants and their children will be the only source of growth for the U.S. labor force in the next 40 years, which may otherwise begin to shrink around 2015.

Though there is increasingly bipartisan agreement on how to retain high-skilled immigrants, Singer argues that we need to help immigrants who are already here develop the skills they need to participate in the new economy. We’ll need more workers in key occupations that are expected to grow over the next decade. She writes:

Immigrants already play a large role as home health, personal care, and nursing aides; food preparation workers; child care workers; truck drivers and freight stock and material movers; and as construction, iron and rebar workers, and helpers to brick masons, carpenters, and pipe layers—making it likely we will depend on immigrants to fill future openings.

Some see Obama’s move as an important first step in developing the new workforce.

“If we truly want to make this country a destination for talent and ingenuity from all over the world,” Obama said in an speech on the economy last week, “we won’t deport hardworking, responsible young immigrants who have grown up here or received advanced degrees here. We’ll let them earn the chance to become American citizens, so they can grow our economy and start new businesses right here instead of someplace else.”

Plus, In a related piece about the country’s shift to a majority minority population, BRR Network Member Manuel Pastor and PolicyLink’s Angela Glover Blackwell argue that changing demographics require a new policy agenda that will help young people of color reach their  full potential and help them contribute to the economy.

Quality, affordable and accessible community college education tops their list as a key part of this agenda, along with support for universal early childhood education, ‘cradle to grave’ programs that offer health care and social supports, and immigration reform. Read the full piece at Politico. And you can read more about our own immigration research at BRR Network.

Photo/ Jobs with Justice.

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