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Immigration Reform: The Next Frontier in the War on Poverty

January 8, 2014


Fifty years ago, as President Lyndon Johnson faced the task of leading our nation out of the trauma of a presidential assassination, he delivered his first State of the Union address with a new challenge to Americans. As the richest nation on earth, he said in January 1964, our country would fight its greatest domestic enemy: poverty.

President Johnson, who grew up poor in Texas, declared an unconditional War on Poverty, a massive initiative that led to the Social Security Act of 1965 that created Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, and food stamps – programs that remain our most critical and effective antipoverty efforts.

Despite these advances, however, we are not yet winning the war against this attack on our social compact. Worse, our battle is hampered by some in Congress who would radically slash funding for these programs and have ignored proposed solutions to address root causes of poverty among one key group: immigrants.

This course must be reversed if we are to fulfill our destiny as a more perfect union.

Nearly 50 million Americans live in poverty, including the elderly, veterans, mothers, children, and millions of immigrants aspiring to become citizens. Americans are impoverished despite working two jobs and long hours to support their families. Our nation is experiencing the greatest income gap since the 1920s and we have staggering inequality in paychecks for people of color and women.

Our children are the poorest. Nearly 38% of black children and 34% of Latino children live in poverty. Immigrant children born into the bottom 20% of wage earners are ten times more likely to be destitute. Without the resources to stay healthy and fight hunger, is it little wonder that U.S. teens lag behind most countries in international educational rankings?

Undocumented immigrant students who manage to excel academically, despite the odds, find their paths out of poverty blocked by denied access to financial aid programs.

National leadership is the key to fighting poverty. Yet Congress has shamefully refused to reform the immigration system so that wage scales, work conditions, and other issues are brought into balance.

Undocumented immigrants pay taxes as they work in jobs that are the lifeblood of our economy and our society – harvesting our food, caring for our young children and elderly parents, and building our homes and schools. Despite having paychecks deducted for Social Security and Medicare taxes – with more than $1.78 billion in income taxes withheld every year on about $60 billion in reported wages – these immigrants never benefit from the very programs that their tax dollars support.

More than one of every five low-wage workers are undocumented immigrants. They work jobs with no opportunity for upward economic mobility, are vulnerable to abuse and retaliation at the hands of bad employers, and constantly fear deportation and separation from their families if they speak out against unfair employment practices.

Allowing low-wage immigrant workers to gain work authorization would dismantle employer efforts to retaliate against employees by depressing wages and working conditions for all workers, including those of color.

When President Johnson asked Americans to help him fight for economic justice, he reminded us that many “live on the outskirts of hope – some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”

Growing up in California and Rhode Island, after President Johnson’s initiatives began, both of us benefitted from his program but we also witnessed injustices against the poor, often because of their skin color. Today, immigrants experience similar injustices – because of their poverty, color and the fear they will be among the 1,100 immigrants deported every day.

Congress and the Obama administration can replace fear and despair with hope and opportunity. Immigration reform would improve our economy by reducing poverty, lifting the floor for all workers, closing the skills and wage gaps that hamper our workforce, and creating healthier students to become our next generation of leaders.

Voters must demand that Congress and the president make fair, inclusive, and commonsense immigration reform with a road to citizenship the next frontier in the War on Poverty.

Marielena Hincapie is executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MarielenaNILC. Barbara Arnwine is president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Follow her on Twitter at @barbs73.

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