Commentary: Immigration Reform an Economic Issue

February 13, 2013 /


Photo: JESUS E. VALENZUELA FELIX/Coachella Unincorporated


JESÚS E. VALENZUELA FÉLIX/Coachella Unincorporated


SALINAS, Calif. — Tuning in to Obama’s State of the Union address, I expected immigration reform to be a key issue — one that would take up a good chunk of his speech. Instead, he devoted roughly two minutes and 10 seconds (clapping included) to the issue, which induced expressions of disappointment from many of my friends who had gathered to watch him on television.

To focus on the brevity of the president’s words on immigration however, is to miss the point of his message. He did, in a subtle way, manage to do something important: he integrated immigration into his speech, much in the same manner as immigrants integrate themselves into every aspect of U.S. society. His message on immigration reform, in fact, could be understood like an integer in a math equation:

Immigration Reform + Higher Minimum Wage + Better Schools + Equal Pay for Women = Better Economy

The president began his speech by situating the economy as the umbrella issue, followed by an explanation of how a good education system helps the economy. And then, just like that, in a brief moment that probably wasn’t even worth a sound bite on the 5 o’clock news, Obama made his point that immigration is not an isolated issue, that undocumented immigrants aren’t isolated people. Rather, undocumented immigrants are integrated into the economy, schools and every other part of society:

“To grow our middle class, our citizens must have access to the education and training that today’s jobs require. But we also have to make sure that America remains a place where everyone who’s willing to work hard has the chance to get ahead. Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants. And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, and faith communities all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”

In other words, the U.S. needs comprehensive immigration reform because it will create a better and more competitive economy.

Now, think of an immigrant.  Do you imagine a farmworker, or a working class man or woman? It’s most likely what the majority of undocumented immigrants look like – men and women from Latin America and Asia coming here to work because they can’t survive in their home country. But undocumented immigrants also work in high tech fields. Or they are students who come to the U.S. to get a good education and return to their home country making that economy more competitive.

Of course, the president knows this. So when he talks about immigration reform he does not frame it as a matter of social justice, or one of stopping families from being separated. No, he frames it as an economic issue, which is tough to argue with regardless of your party affiliation — numbers know no emotion.

In fact, that Obama spent so little of his speech on immigration reform — and did not resort to an emotional argument — could even be a good sign. Unlike gun control, which faces an uphill battle in Congress and formed the emotional center of Obama’s speech, with the repeated line, “They deserve a vote,” immigration reform is an issue that already has momentum in Congress and bipartisan support.

Obama did not resort to an emotional argument when discussing immigration reform. Maybe he didn’t have to.


Jesús E. Valenzuela Félix is a reporter from Coachella living in Salinas and working for the United Farm Workers Foundation. He contributes regularly to Coachella Unincorporated.

Tags: , , , , , ,