Roth: Reform mustn’t leave immigrants in limbo

February 12, 2014 

Ben Roth

— Our state has one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the country. Immigrants are our neighbors, the people behind us in the check-out line, the parents of our kids’ friends at school.

Not only are they contributing members of our communities, but South Carolina increasingly relies on the economic contributions of immigrants, including those who are undocumented. The Perryman Group estimates that undocumented immigrants in South Carolina contribute $1.8 billion a year in economic activity, working 12,000 jobs that others refuse to take.

Offering undocumented immigrants a path to legalization but not citizenship — as U.S. House Speaker John Boehner says any immigration bill that the House passes would do — is a mistake. Legalization leaves them in limbo, obstructed from fully participating economically, socially or politically in society.

President Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is a case in point. The program temporarily defers deportation for eligible undocumented young people who came to the United States as children.

There are more than 3,500 children in South Carolina who are covered under this program, which gives them a two-year permit to work. It is a real boost, but these young people still face significant obstacles. They can’t apply for federal financial aid for college, and in South Carolina they must pay non-resident tuition, even though they have grown up in our schools. They are in limbo.

We cannot make the same mistake with immigration-reform legislation.

We’ve gotten it right before: Congress passed an immigration bill in 1986 that included a path to citizenship. When President Reagan signed the bill, he said that undocumented immigrants would be able to leave the shadows and “step into the sunlight.” In South Carolina, they’re already in the sunlight, so to speak: They live next door, they work down the street. They’re one of us.

It’s time South Carolina’s congressional delegation recognizes them as such and offers them a path to citizenship.

Benjamin J. Roth

Assistant Professor

College of Social Work, USC

Columbia

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