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Bring undocumented workers out of the shadows

By Theodore McCarrick,

Theodore McCarrick is archbishop emeritus of Washington.

The nation celebrates Labor Day to recognize the contributions of hard-working men, women and families across America. This year we should pause also to remember the workers on the margins who perform some of the most critical jobs in our economy.

About 11 million undocumented people live in the United States. As many as 7 million are employed in some capacity; they work in construction, agriculture, service, health care and other critical industries. They pay billions into the Social Security system each year — helping to keep it solvent — and billions more in sales, property and other taxes.

Yet our nation does not offer them workplace protections, the minimum wage or other basic benefits. According to the Interfaith Worker Justice Center, as many as 80 percent of undocumented workers have experienced wage theft — denial of overtime, payments of less than minimum wage or no payment at all.

They are scapegoats for social ills and victims of harassment and discrimination. Sadly, they represent a permanent underclass upon which our economy depends but exploits, to our nation’s benefit.

Some argue that undocumented workers and their families do not deserve legal protection because they live outside the law. That’s short-sighted, given that U.S. policy actually encourages illegal immigration. Although the federal government has spent billions on border enforcement over the past 15 years, the number of undocumented residents in the nation has increased from 7 million to about 11 million — primarily because before the recession that began in 2008, almost 80 percent of male migrant workers found jobs with U.S. companies.

The powerful magnet of available employment, which will inevitably return as our economy recovers, draws immigrants to this country. The drive to support one’s family and survive and our nation’s need for workers create an overwhelming force. An analysis of Labor Department data by the Migration Policy Institute indicates that foreign-born workers will be needed to help meet U.S. labor demand in the coming years.

Despite this real need, U.S. immigration law fails to provide channels for these workers to migrate safely and legally. Visas for low-skilled workers are absurdly small given demand, with only 5,000 permanent work visas available each year.

The comprehensive immigration reform legislation passed this summer in the Senate would invite undocumented workers out of the shadows and into the full economy. It would provide a path to citizenship, allow them to work without fear and ensure that they pay the full measure of taxes owed. It also would create a program offering future migrant workers — as many as 200,000 a year — an opportunity to obtain visas and enter the United States safely and legally. It would mandate the implementation of a national employment verification system to ensure that all employers play by the same rules.

Such reforms would level the playing field for all laborers in the United States, as the reforms are designed to eliminate, or severely reduce, the underground “off the books” economy. The reforms would also help reduce our federal deficit by increasing economic activity and tax revenue. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the Senate bill would cut the deficit by $197 billion by 2023 and $700 billion over the next decade.

These realities create a challenge for federal lawmakers, particularly members of the House, when they return to Washington: to finally acknowledge that U.S. immigration law needs repair. It requires a complete overhaul, not simply enforcement-only measures. While the leadership in the House may choose a different process for getting there, the final product passed by Congress must include all of the elements necessary to fix the system, including an earned path to citizenship for undocumented workers and their families.

As the country celebrates another Labor Day, we ought to be mindful of the large underclass of workers who pick our vegetables, clean our homes and care for our children and senior citizens. It is not the American way to accept the fruits of their labor while denying them its benefits. To continue to do so lessens us as a nation and dishonors the values of work and opportunity that make the United States great. This nation has grown and flourished because of immigrants throughout its history; it still does. It will continue to flourish if we enact comprehensive immigration reform today.

Read more from PostOpinions: Jonathan Bernstein: The GOP, not the calendar, is the obstacle for immigration reform Eugene Robinson: Boehner’s immigration win-win Roberto Suro and Jorge G. Castañeda: Who can fix America’s immigration mess? Mexico. The Post’s View: Inching toward immigration reform Michael Gerson: Republicans must come to terms on immigration Esther J. Cepeda: The truth about immigration reform and the Hispanic vote

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