What a difference an election makes.

Several leaders in the Republican Party — and in the conservative media — have suddenly changed their tune, and are now saying we need to seriously look at immigration reform. After years of inaction in Washington, they’re even floating an outline of a proposal that would offer legalization alternatives to undocumented young people, better known as “dreamers.”

Even President Barack Obama seems to be willing to push hard for immigration reform, something that, most objective observers agree, he didn’t do much of during his first term.

A good electoral kick in the behind (or a good push, in the case of Obama) can be a great motivator to change political positions on an issue like immigration, one in which for too long the politics of the lowest common denominator and crass voter strategies have been more important than crafting a policy that helps the nation.

It’s healthy and refreshing to see Republican leaders say anything on this issue beyond suggesting that pressuring people to voluntarily leave the country would somehow solve all our economic troubles. This was the line most of them took, with a few notable exceptions, such as when a fed-up Jeb Bush said at a meeting of the Hispanic Leadership Council during the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., this summer that Republicans “could persuade Latinos to our cause, if only we stop saying stupid things.”

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida also took some steps to warn his party about the mistake it was making on the issue, but then he proceeded to generously endorse and campaign for Mitt Romney, the worst nominee on the issue of immigration that the Republican Party has produced in recent memory. The former governor of Massachusetts is a proponent of a very vile — and ineffective — form of immigration control: “attrition through enforcement” or “self-deportation.”

But Rubio also said recently that the cause of resolving the status of undocumented young people is a “humanitarian one” and equated them to “refugees, because they’re here through no fault of their own.”

It makes sense to view immigration reform as a human rights issue, and one that should be seen through the lens of this country’s principles and values. But it is wrong to see it as only that. Because this is not just a political matter or a humanitarian one. Having an adequate set of immigration policies and working to integrate a vast segment of the population that has significantly benefited this nation and will continue to do so are nothing short of economic necessities. I am talking about the immigrants without papers, most of whom have been in the U.S. for 10, 15 or even 20 years, and have families, businesses and homes here.

In other words, it’s the economy, stupid.

The main problem that proponents of immigration reform faced over the last 18 years was that the issue was mostly seen as something to be wielded as an electoral tool, and not a policy that needed to make sense for the good of the nation. Current immigration policy has not advanced the interests of the United States for many years, in part because it has not responded to the needs of industries that have offered more jobs than could be filled by U.S. citizens. There was no flexibility in the number of work visas granted or people who could come here so it could be adjusted to match the demands of the economy at any particular point in our recent history. Rather than adapt those quotas and reform immigration laws to recognize reality, an “enforcement only” or “enforcement primarily” mentality took hold of the political mainstream. This started in 1994 with California’s Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that barred the state from providing most social services, including education, to undocumented immigrants. The measure was intended not as a real policy solution — and has obviously not been one — but as a way to exploit the immigration issue to win elections. And although Proposition 187 was effective for that short-term purpose — it helped Republican Gov. Pete Wilson win re-election in 1994 — it destroyed his party’s long-term viability in California, and the GOP political brand became infected with the virus of nativism.

Eighteen years later, we can clearly see the consequences of making shortsighted use of immigration as a divisive wedge issue. None of the “solutions” offered since then have resulted in deterring unauthorized immigration, improving the economy or making sense of the system. Immigrating legally is essentially a nightmare that involves mountains of complex bureaucratic paperwork, thousands of dollars and, in many cases, years of waiting. Many proposed solutions have been based on a series of unproven assertions and fears about what the presence of those unauthorized immigrants might be doing to Americans, when the reality is most research shows the undocumented represent a net positive for the economy and for the job prospects of U.S. citizens.

Studies demonstrate that these unauthorized immigrants create more opportunity for everyone: more jobs in other areas of the economy, and more productivity for businesses big and small. One way they do this is by having the flexibility to move around the country in search of the markets where jobs are available, a reason immigrants are spreading out into areas where their presence had not been strongly felt before, such as Oklahoma, Ohio and Virginia. An extreme example of this is the vital role undocumented laborers played in the cleanup efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Undocumented immigrants are providing that service again after Superstorm Sandy, especially in New Jersey.

They’re not the “moochers” that many make them out to be, coming here for easy “benefits.” Unauthorized immigrants pay many types of taxes, including payroll, business and property; replenish the Social Security fund (with money they never take out, about $11 billion and counting); and last, but not least, they make it possible for middle-class families to enjoy a more comfortable lifestyle, able to afford nannies, cleaning crews and home health care workers. They’re also essential to the subsistence of small businesses, and many are small-business owners and entrepreneurs themselves.

In fact, immigrants and their descendants may well be the solution for several of the problems that the United States faces now and will in the near future. But instead of concentrating on the many benefits immigrants bring to this country, politicians have found it easier to focus on the negative effects they supposedly have on the economy, which these elected officials can never prove. But they don’t let facts get in the way of their arguments.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder explained the phenomenon in an op-ed published in February in newspapers across the country. “The trouble is that the debate around immigration is too often focused on politics, not economics,” they wrote. That’s exactly right.

Scholars and other experts have spoken, studied and written about this for years. “There is an urgent need for immigration reform,” said USC demographer Dowell Myers. “Unfortunately, debates about immigration in America have been backward-looking, emphasizing trends of the last 10 years, not the future. In the decade ahead, much will change — immigrants and the rest of us included.

“The preoccupation with matters of legal status, important as they are, has distracted us from the larger question of whether we need immigrants in the first place,” Myers continued. “For that answer we must look more closely at American society itself.”

The United States faces the same irrefutable reality as other developed countries around the world: an aging population, which means rapid growth of the least productive segment of society that have retired after a lifetime of work and are now collecting Social Security and pensions, relying on Medicare and, in many cases, not financially independent.

The large migration of the last 30 years is one reason the United States may yet recover from this recession, continue to be a vibrant economy and be able to remake itself in a world in which everything is globalized, including the competition for labor, both high and low skilled.

And this is why having an adequate set of immigration laws is not a “gift” for people who come here in general or Latinos in particular. It is not an issue of only human rights and dignity. No matter how loudly some may claim the opposite, immigration reform is an economic necessity for the United States.

Pilar Marrero is senior political and immigration writer for Impremedia/La Opinión and author of the book “Killing the American Dream: How Immigration Extremists Are Destroying the Nation,” published by Palgrave.

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