Commentary: State and local policymakers can take two key steps to better integrate immigrants, including immigrants who are undocumented, into the mainstream economy and foster community well-being, according to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Giving all residents access to economic opportunity enables them to earn higher wages, spend more at local businesses, and contribute more in taxes that are used to fund schools and other investments that are critical to a strong economy, the report finds. Harsh anti-immigrant policies, in contrast, harm workers and their children, and likely weaken the economy.
“At a time when federal immigration policies are causing widespread harm, it is both sound policy and beneficial to states to pursue supportive polices that assuage fears and provide opportunity for all of their residents – regardless of their national origin, their religion, the color of their skin, or the language they speak,” Senior Policy Analyst Eric Figueroa of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explained.
The report highlights two important ways New Mexico can connect people who are undocumented to opportunity:
1. Stronger labor law enforcement will ensure that all workers, regardless of immigration status, are paid what they earn while helping level the playing field for businesses and workers. Despite the economic costs of lost wages and tax revenues, most states – including New Mexico – lack enough investigators to effectively enforce the minimum wage.
2. Expanding health coverage to all children, regardless of immigration status, can improve long-term health outcomes, high school and college completion, and long-term economic benefits for the child and for states and local communities. Only six states and D.C. offer health care coverage to all children. New Mexico is not one of them.
“Every child should be able to see a doctor when they are sick, need immunizations, and need to be screened for developmental delays,” said James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, which is part of the CBPP’s national network, State Priorities Partnership. “And of course, stronger enforcement of labor laws would benefit all working New Mexicans – particularly those who are earning low wages, since they are the workers most likely to be cheated out of earned income by unscrupulous employers.”
“When immigrant workers are short changed, their families’ long term economic security suffers. While New Mexico boasts some of the strongest anti-wage theft laws in the country, without an adequate budget to enforce them the state will continue to let employers off the hook,” said Marcela Díaz, Executive Director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a statewide immigrant and worker’s rights organization. “Also, in this anti-immigrant climate people are more hesitant to file complaints about workplace abuse for fear of retaliation or deportation. That’s why it’s so important that state agencies safeguard our personal information from ICE.”
“Wage theft is rampant in New Mexico and not only plunges low-wage workers and their families further into poverty, it also robs money from government coffers, and puts honest companies at a competitive disadvantage. Vigorous and well-funded enforcement needs to be part of New Mexico's economic development plan,” said Marian Méndez Cera, Workers’ Justice Organizer at El CENTRO de Igualdad y Derechos. “In addition, with the constant attacks coming from the Trump administration to criminalize and target our communities, enforcement of labor laws need to be coupled with policies that protect immigrant communities. Workers should never fear that doing a wage claim, or any other interface with a governmental agency, could lead to family separation. We have worked with elected officials to pass local policies – it is time to do the same at the state level.”
The report also recommends two policies that New Mexico has already implemented. Those are: having inclusive driver’s license laws that allow for immigrants who are undocumented to be licensed to drive; and providing in-state tuition and state financial aid for college students who are undocumented.
People who are undocumented make sizable contributions to their state’s economy and finances, as well as their local communities, according to the report. The nation’s estimated 11 million immigrants who are undocumented pay nearly $12 billion annually in state and local taxes, for instance. And households headed by a person who is undocumented pay a larger share of their income in state and local taxes than the top 1 percent of U.S. households.
The CBPP’s report is available on their website here: https://www.cbpp.org/research/state-budget-and-tax/inclusive-approach-to-immigrants-who-are-undocumented-can-help