The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Why You Should Care About Immigration

Immigration policy affects all aspects of society. Regardless of status, immigrants have always played a central role in the life and growth of our nation. Immigrants contribute $10 billion a year to this country's economic growth. Unfortunately, in the wake of September 11 terrorist attacks, immigrants in the United States have increasingly been targets of discrimination and suspicion. Our country must be defended, but one must not forget this nation's commitment to the ideals of equality and freedom for all peoples. The Palmer Raids, the McCarran-Walter Act, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and Japanese internment all serve as painful reminders of how our overreactions can have drastic implications for the civil rights of those who are not perceived as being fully "American."

Frequently Asked Questions: Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Q: What are The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights' priorities for comprehensive immigration reform?

The Leadership Conference supports the following key principles:

  • A Path to Permanent Residency: Hard-working immigrants who are contributing to this country should be encouraged to come out of the shadows and regularize their status. Forcing millions of undocumented workers to hide in an underground economy, as H.R. 4437 does, hurts the health, safety and welfare of all Americans. Proposals that would create a legal but permanent underclass would be equally unfair and discriminatory. Our goal should be to integrate immigrants into the United States, once they meet reasonable requirements like background checks and payment of back taxes. This can only be done by providing them with meaningful opportunities to become lawful permanent residents and eventually United States citizens.
  • Firm and Fair Enforcement: Our nation's immigration policies must be consistent with humanitarian values and with the need to treat all individuals with respect and dignity. Any proposal that would criminalize undocumented immigrants, encourage state or local police to enforce immigration laws, or penalize individuals for providing humanitarian assistance to their fellow human beings must be strongly opposed. Criminalizing undocumented immigrants or the people around them with new punitive measures will not deter illegal immigration; it will only drive it further underground. Enforcement policies should focus on the critical task of establishing a safe, orderly system of entry into the United States that meets the needs of families and businesses alike, with a priority on identifying and preventing the entry of terrorists and dangerous criminals.
  • Restoration of due process: In 1996, Congress enacted immigration laws that drastically affected the rights of immigrants. The laws imposed an extremely harsh new system of mandatory detention and deportation for immigrants with prior criminal offenses, even legal permanent residents with very old or minor infractions. The term "aggravated felony" is now applied in immigration law to go far beyond what most members of Congress contemplated, to even include misdemeanors, and to curtail many forms of judicial review. Any immigration reform proposal that fails to address - or even worsens - the well-publicized, unfair impact of the 1996 laws would raise serious concerns. Immigrants facing deportation for any reason must have access to fair, humane and common-sense procedures.
  • Family Reunification: Our family-based immigration system needs to be significantly reformed. It can often take years, even more than a decade, for close relatives of U.S. citizens or permanent residents to obtain immigrant visas, which simply encourages people to overstay temporary visas or find some other way to illegally enter the country. In order to reduce backlogs, any proposal should stop subtracting the visas given to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens from visas available to all family immigrants, thereby artificially depressing the number of visas available to other close relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. We must also stop preventing U.S. citizens and permanent residents who can support their families at or above the poverty level guideline from reuniting with their families.
  • A Meaningful Way to Address the Future Flow of Workers into the U.S.: Some Leadership Conference members believe that future labor needs can be met through guest-worker programs that include meaningful labor protections and provide immigrant workers with a clear path to permanent residency and citizenship. Others disagree that future flows should be addressed through a guest-worker program, and believe that future workers should be admitted as full partners into our society and our workplaces through the current "green card" employment based visa system, rather than through guest-worker programs - which they believe to be inherently exploitative. Under either framework, any program designed to meet the proven needs of employers for new labor must fully protect the rights of both immigrant workers as well as those already here. A proposal that simply forces established workers to leave the U.S. after a short period of time will only encourage them to remain here illegally.

Q: Do undocumented immigrants pay taxes?

  • Undocumented immigrants pay taxes in a number of ways, including income and sales tax. The majority of undocumented immigrants pay income taxes using Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs), although some use false Social Security numbers. All immigrants, regardless of status, will pay on average $80,000 per capita more in taxes than they use in government services over their lifetime. The Social Security system reaps the biggest windfall from taxes paid by immigrants; the Social Security Administration reports that it holds approximately $420 billion from the earnings of immigrants who are not in a position to claim benefits.

Source: The National Council of La Raza

Q: Do undocumented immigrants receive public benefits?

  • Undocumented immigrants are eligible for a small minority of state and federal benefits, such as emergency care and certain types of welfare. Undocumented immigrants are only eligible for public benefits that are considered important to public health and safety. In fact, many documented immigrants are also ineligible for most federal benefits. As a result, health care spending for immigrants is approximately half that of citizens.

Source: The National Council of La Raza

Q: What type of access do immigrants have to public benefits?

  • An immigrant's access to federal public benefits depends on his or her immigration status and the date of entry into the U.S. Undocumented immigrants may only obtain emergency health care and very few other services. For legal permanent residents, eligibility for some benefits depends on whether they entered before or after the passage of the 1996 welfare law. Though immigrants share the obligation to pay taxes with native-born Americans, their access to public benefits is much more restricted.

Source: The National Immigration Forum

Q: What are immigrants' rights to "due process"?

  • While immigrants are inherently treated differently under our laws from United States citizens, The Leadership Conference strongly believes that immigrants are still entitled to fundamental fairness and common sense from the laws that govern their admission and removal. Particularly as a result of sweeping immigration reforms in 1996, however, immigrants are often subjected to arbitrary and even cruel laws and procedures.
  • As a result of the 1996 laws, refugees fleeing persecution are now much more likely to be sent back by low-level immigration officials. American families have been torn apart because legal immigrants who had minor brushes with the law years ago can be locked up and deported with no chance for bond, limited access to attorneys, and without any second chances.

Source: The National Immigration Forum

Common Terms to Know

  • Immigrant: Under U.S. law, a foreign-born individual who has been admitted to reside permanently in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident (LPR or "green card holder"). Informally, the term is often applied to any foreign-born resident or long-term visitor, regardless of legal status.
  • Naturalized citizen: Lawful permanent residents may apply for U.S. citizenship through the naturalization process. To qualify for naturalization, legal permanent resident must reside in the U.S. for at least five years (three if they obtained their green card through marriage to a U.S. citizen) and must not have committed any serious crimes, must show they have paid their taxes, and are of "good moral character." They must also demonstrate knowledge of U.S. history and government as well as an ability to understand, speak, and write English.
  • Legal Permanent Resident: A person who has been admitted to reside permanently in the U.S. Also see "immigrant."
  • non immigrant: A person who is permitted to enter the U.S. for a limited period of time but is not admitted for permanent residence.
  • Undocumented immigrant: A person who is residing in the U.S. without the permission of the U.S. government. Undocumented immigrants enter the U.S. either illegally, without being inspected by an immigration officer or by using false documents, or legally, with a temporary visa and then remain in the U.S. after the visa has expired.
  • Refugee: A person outside the U.S. who seeks protection on the grounds that he or she fears persecution. To obtain refugee status, the person has to prove that he or she has a "well-founded fear of persecution" on the basis of the person's race, religion, membership in a social group, political opinion, or national origin.
  • Asylee: A person who has already entered the U.S. and who fears persecution if sent back to his or her home country can apply for asylum in the U.S. To obtain asylum, the individual has to prove that he or she has a "well-founded fear of persecution" on the basis of the person's race, religion, membership in a social group, political opinion, or national origin.

Source: The National Immigration Forum

More in-depth information on immigration reform:

American Immigration Lawyers Association: http://www.aila.org
National Council of La Raza http://www.nclr.org
National Immigration Forum http://www.immigrationforum.org
National Immigration Law Center http://www.nilc.org
New American Opportunity Campaign http://www.cirnow.org 

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