The Bush administration - pressing Congress to
complete immigration reform legislation, is highlighting the contributions
immigrants make to the U.S. economy.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez appeared before the Senate
Judiciary Committee Wednesday to discuss the impact immigrants have on the
There may be no better spokesman on the issue than Gutierrez.
The 53-year-old Commerce Secretary was born in Havana, Cuba, and fled
to the United States with his family when he was six. He learned English,
became a U.S. citizen, and later studied business administration. He took
an entry-level sales job at the cereal manufacturing company Kellogg's,
where he rose through the ranks to become Chairman of the Board and Chief
Executive Officer before President Bush nominated him to his current post.
Under questioning by committee chairman, Republican Senator Arlen
Specter of Pennsylvania, Gutierrez highlighted the role immigrants play in
the growth of the U.S. economy.
"The unemployment rate for undocumented workers is actually below the
national average, which suggests that they come for one reason and one
reason only, and that is to work," he said. "Approximately - these are
estimates - five or six percent of our jobs are carried out by
"And is their presence here, their contribution to the economy, a net
gain that ripples through to the benefit of all the rest of us in this
country," asked Specter.
"Absolutely, the owners of the businesses that have access to those
workers in turn become consumers, in turn spend money in our economy, they
invest in their businesses," replied Gutierrez. "The immigrants become
consumers. There is a multiplying effect to our economy, that every
estimate I have seen suggests it is positive."
But some in Congress, Republican conservatives in particular, believe
illegal immigrants could be taking a toll on the U.S. economy and local
Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, says Americans are finding it
increasingly difficult to get emergency health care because undocumented
workers who do not have insurance that would pay for routine doctor visits
are filling hospital emergency rooms.
"Twenty-five percent of my constituents in Texas do not have health
insurance, and a large number of those are undocumented immigrants who
show up in emergency rooms, and so emergency rooms go on divert status,
where true emergencies have to go to wherever they can find the help,"
But Senator Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, cited statistics
from the National Research Council that suggest immigrants in general
contribute to the tax base that funds services.
"Overall, an immigrant and his family contribute over 80,000 more in
taxes over their lifetime than they consume in services," he said.
Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, noting that most
undocumented workers in the United States are low-skilled, argued that
more should be done to attract high-skilled immigrants to this country.
"We need high-skilled workers, they make a great contribution. Our
marketplace needs low-skilled workers as well. Most of the immigrant
generations that have come to this country have been low-skilled,"
Gutierrez responded. "The first generation is low-skilled. But because
they come to work, because they come in search of a dream, they work very
hard to ensure that their children are not low-skilled."
Immigration advocates argue that many of the undocumented workers in
the United States are doing jobs that Americans generally are unwilling to
do, including manual labor in agriculture and construction.
Gutierrez's appearance on Capitol Hill comes as the Senate and House of
Representatives are preparing to reconcile vastly different immigration
reform bills passed by each chamber. The effort to find common ground
between the two different pieces of legislation reflects the tensions
surrounding the issue that are being played out in the much of the
Ben Johnson, director of the Washington-based non-profit Immigration
Policy Center put it this way.
"The real challenges we face today stem from the fact that we send
two messages at our border: help wanted and keep out," he said. "The
byproduct of this schizophrenia is that law enforcement agencies, businesses
and families are stuck between a rock and a hard place. In short, we
have created an unsustainable contradiction between U.S. economic policy
and U.S. immigration policy, and economics is winning. We can either
continue to spend billions of dollars in an immigration enforcement battle with
our own economy and our own labor force, or we can create an
immigration system that is not only good at keeping people out, but effective
at letting people in."
The Senate has passed a bill that includes a guest worker provision
that would allow many of the estimated 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants
a path to eventual citizenship if they meet certain conditions. It also
would bolster border security.
A House-passed bill focuses on border security enforcement, and does
not contain the guest worker provision. It designates illegal immigrants
felons to be deported.
The Bush administration favors the Senate approach. Gutierrez argues an
enforcement-only bill would send illegal immigrants into hiding.