Undocumented migration: Beneficial or harmful?

Many would say undocumented migration is harmful to the country. I would say that undocumented migration is more harmful to the migrants. However, what is the reason why we seem to have tolerated it in our country for the past 40 years? Those who seem to oppose immigration cite the rule of law whereby illegal migration, by definition, is presumed to be harmful. On the other hand, we see a labor market, especially in the agricultural and other sectors, that rely heavily on undocumented migration.

In the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, we saw the overturning of racial quota systems replaced by an emphasis on family reunification and labor market needs. Since this legislation has not been updated to meet our present needs, however, we find ourselves with a structural bias that favors undocumented migration. Undocumented workers benefit the agricultural sector and the service sector, which need entry-level people who will work difficult jobs at minimal pay. In the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, there was a provision for employer sanctions on those who hired undocumented laborers. However, this provision of the law has hardly been enforced, except in very specific areas, due to the lack of funding for personnel and a general lack of political will. Why undermine the supply of cheap, pliable labor for important industries?

Contrary to popular belief, many undocumented people do pay into the Social Security system, which is matched by their employers. This, however, is not a universal phenomenon, as we see many industries benefiting from what might be called "cheap labor" in an unregulated market. This is not good for the workers nor for the integrity of our nation.

The toleration of a parallel labor market largely unregulated, lacking protections and bereft of normal social benefits, such as health care, certainly is not good for the undocumented. Since they have little opportunity to leave the labor market dependent on them, these workers are trapped and are subject to low pay and inhumane working conditions. Our nation is certainly overdue for a legalization of the undocumented population, estimated at least between 10 to 11 million.

In the past, our immigration laws recognized that there would be undocumented people in the country and, normally after a 5- to 10-year period, a type of statute of limitations -- known in immigration parlance as a registry -- would take effect. If the migrants had no criminal record and were self-sufficient, they could be regularized. Unfortunately, the last time this provision of the law was updated was in 1976. If only we updated the registry date to somewhere in the 2020s, most of the undocumented population, who are already integrated in the labor market and in our society, would have legal status.

Without the legalization of those in an undocumented status, it is like performing an operation on a cancer patient and leaving some of the cancer behind. Unless legal status is given to the undocumented, labor market controls are put in place, and immigrant workers are able to assert their rights in the workplace, we will continue to lament the unlawful passage of immigrants over porous borders. Until we recognize what is good for our nation and good for the migrants, we will not resolve this social justice problem.

- Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio is retired bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the column "Walking With Migrants" for Catholic News Service and The Tablet.