Inquirer Editorial: America needs immigrants, even the ones living here illegally

A Pew Research Center analysis that indicates a quarter of Philadelphia's foreign-born residents may be in this country illegally puts into perspective the likely impact locally of President Trump's crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

The Pew report said Philadelphia has about 50,000 unauthorized immigrants, which is about a fourth of the city's 200,000 foreign-born residents. Ten years ago, about 27 percent of the city's estimated 170,000 foreign-born residents were living in this country illegally.

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ERIC GAY / Associated Press

New York has a vastly larger undocumented population (525,000) than Philadelphia, but that is only 16 percent of New York's foreign-born population. Baltimore, 29 percent, and Washington, 26 percent, have higher ratios but much smaller undocumented resident populations, 35,000 and 25,000, respectively.

Nationally, more than 41 million residents, or about 13 percent of the total U.S. population, are foreign born, but 11.1 million don't have the proper documentation to be here. Many have been residents for decades. They go to work every day, pay taxes, raise families, and otherwise abide by the law. Their children know no home other than the United States.

Presidents and Congresses have for years talked about providing legal residency for many of the undumented immigrants, including a path to citizenship. But the closest they ever came was with a 2006 bill cosponsored by Republican John McCain and Democrat Ted Kennedy. A bipartisan bill again seemed to have a chance in 2013, but it too fell by the wayside.

Now the Trump administration is taking an opposite approach that threatens to do much more harm than good. Mimicking Obama, he bypassed Congress and has issued executive orders that expedite construction of a Mexican border wall, greatly expand which immigrants are targeted for deportation, and deny federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities like Philadelphia that limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

Trump insists a wider net to catch dangerous criminals is needed, but other than anecdotes he has provided scant evidence that the Obama administration policy of targeting persons convicted of serious crimes wasn't working. Under Trump's directive, immigration and Homeland Security agents are also picking up people convicted of minor crimes like using a fake Social Security number to get a job or driving without a license.

The stepped-up deportation tactics are unlikely to make a significant dent in this country's population of more than 11 million undocumented residents. But the greater likelihood of arrest will make people's lives miserable. Scenes of families being torn apart, children losing their mothers, have become more frequent. The harsh treatment scores political points, but it is illogical.

The president and Congress need to acknowledge the glaring fact that America - with its declining birth rate and increasingly inadequate workforce - needs immigrants, including those here illegally. More than a border wall or questionable deportations, this nation needs to find a way to fairly and expeditiously evaluate undocumented immigrants and provide those who qualify a route to legal residency.

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