Such worries are no more rational today -- or born out of actual evidence -- than they were a hundred years ago. It is true that Hispanic immigrants today take awhile to catch up with the native born just as their European predecessors did, and illegal immigrants never fully do so in terms of education or earnings. But there is still some room for optimism in the Pew Hispanic report. Nearly half of illegal immigrants between the ages of 18-24 who have graduated from high school attend college. A surprising 25 percent of illegal immigrant adults have at least some college, with 15 percent having completed college.
And although earnings among illegal immigrants are lower than among either the native population or legal immigrants, they are far from destitute. The median household income for illegal immigrants was $36,000 in 2007 compared with $50,000 for native-born households. And illegal immigrant males have much higher labor force participation rates than the native born, 94 percent compared with 83 percent for U.S.-born males.
The inflow of illegal immigrants has slowed substantially since the peak, which occurred during the economic boom of the late 1990s, not in recent years, contrary to popular but uninformed opinion. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates there are nearly 12 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S. now, a number that has stabilized over the last few years as a result both of better border enforcement and the declining job market. As a result, there might never be a better time to grapple with what to do about this population than right now.
The fact that so many illegal immigrants are intertwined with American citizens or legal residents, either as spouses or parents, should give pause to those who'd like to see all illegal immigrants rounded up and deported or their lives made so miserable they leave on their own. A better approach would allow those who have made their lives here, established families, bought homes, worked continuously and paid taxes to remain after paying fines, demonstrating English fluency, and proving they have no criminal record. Such an approach is as much about supporting family values as it is granting amnesty.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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