An estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants are living in the U.S. Most of them are from Central and South America and Houston is a major hub for smuggling immigrants to different parts of the country. Nestor Rodriguez is a professor of sociology at the University of Houston and chair co-Director of the Center for Immigration Research. He says the economic impact of immigration will be at the center of the congressional debate.
"Some researchers are saying well the net effect is that overall immigration helps the country because it -- low-wage labor -- I'm talking about the immigration of undocumented, right -- helps subsidize certain service industries. You're able to pay only a dollar for a cup of coffee because there's a large undocumented labor force that's working for minimum wage or even lower, okay. So that's part of the externalities, right, but on the other hand there's this negative effect of public clinics, hospitals, tax-supported institutions that have to carry and pay the bill for people who cannot afford certain services."
The Senate is expected to spend the next two weeks debating immigration reform. The House passed measures to build a fence along the U.S. Mexico border and treat illegal immigrants as felons to be deported. The Senate will take up those issues along with other suggestions to allow foreign workers to stay in the country for five to six years or send them back home to apply for legal citizenship. Rodriguez says Houston is uniquely poised to respond to any changes.
"Communities like Houston that have a robust economy, are strong and growing, who can take in you know 50,000 refugees from New Orleans and not feel the effect, this community, as tied to the global economy as it is can incorporate immigrants and can turn them into a resource for growth. Other communities that don't have a labor market that's as strong, that don't have an economy that's as strong may have a different effect."
President George Bush supports a guest worker program which would allow immigrants already in the country to obtain work visas without gaining amnesty. Rodriguez says he doesn't know if that is the solution, but he does know that immigrant labor is not going away.
"It's not like you have a choice. It's like if you want to be part of the global economy, this is one of the conditions and characteristics. No economy, no nation status is a country in itself, we're all inter-related now. And part of the inter-relationship used to be just the migration of capital. Today, the reality it's also the migration of labor. The question becomes: how do we formalize this, how do we legalize this? And I think that's the challenge that the president is trying to deal with."
Thousands of people across the country joined protests and demonstrations over the weekend regarding the measures the House approved. Laurie Johnson Houston Public Radio News.