Legal help for undocumented workers would benefit them – but also Oregon’s economy

February 1, 2022By Janet Bauer

[This commentary first appeared in Oregon Capitol Chronicle]

A little over a year ago, when much of the economy remained shut due to the Covid pandemic, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a memo outlining the jobs “essential” to the nation’s “critical infrastructure.”

When researchers examined those categories, they discovered that undocumented workers are much more likely to perform essential work than U.S.-born workers. In Oregon, about three out of every four undocumented workers are essential workers.

Even so, undocumented workers live under the constant threat of deportation – the threat of being removed from this country, the threat of having their families broken up.

While Oregon lawmakers can’t change the immigration laws, they can limit the harm deportation inflicts on Oregon families and the state’s economy. They can do so by enacting universal legal representation.

Right now, some 9,000 Oregonians are fighting deportation. An immigration case affects not only them, but their 8,000 family members, including 5,000 children — most of whom are U.S. citizens or legal residents — and countless members of their communities. More than half of deportation cases end in removal of the person.

A deportation proceeding takes a big financial toll on families. Lost wages, fees and other costs go on for years. Win or lose their case, family finances suffer. Researchers have found that, long after the conclusion of the case, household income lags by a third to more than half its prior level.

Given that families with undocumented members tend to be lower income, a deportation proceeding sinks families into deep economic hardship. Families report losing their home to foreclosure or eviction. Many admit to going hungry.

Children, in particular, pay a heavy price. One in ten Oregon children live with a relative who is undocumented. These children live under constant fear of having someone close to them being taken away. When a parent is deported, children experience anxiety, depression, and anger. Their schooling suffers; their life-goals are upended.

On top of the emotional trauma, children must also make do with less. Our organization estimated conservatively, that a child in Oregon who has a parent deported loses about $56,000 in financial support during their childhood years.

The harm from deportation spreads beyond individuals and families — it impacts the state’s economy. As has been the case throughout our nation’s history, today’s immigrants boost the economy as workers, business owners, consumers, and taxpayers. Their removal weakens the economy.

No industry is more at risk than Oregon’s $4.5-billion agriculture industry. Our analysis showed that undocumented workers make up nearly half of all farm labor in Oregon, as the agriculture industry finds it difficult to attract U.S.-born workers. Because rural counties depend more on agriculture than urban counties, rural counties have a large stake in the fate of undocumented residents facing deportation.

Undocumented workers bolster the economy in other ways. They buy food, pay rent, have their cars fixed, and purchase other goods and services. These dollars circulate in local economies, helping sustain the businesses and jobs of other Oregonians.

We estimated that if the current backlog of deportation cases in Oregon is decided according to long-term trends – with a bit more than half of cases ending in removal – then Oregon will have about $130 million fewer dollars circulating in the economy per year through fewer purchases of goods and services.

While Oregon can’t fully eliminate the harm from deportation, it can reduce it. Legal representation plays a big role in whether someone’s case ends in deportation. Many Oregonians who are deported never had the help of a lawyer.

Despite the federal government always being represented by an experienced attorney, immigrants facing deportation are not entitled to a lawyer. Few can afford one. Facing the court alone, they often are unable to mount a strong defense, even if they have good legal grounds for remaining. It’s an inherently unfair process.

In response to these challenges, the Oregon Legislature can make a big difference. Enacting universal representation would provide all Oregonians in immigration court the benefit of a lawyer. This would go a long way in ensuring that Oregonians are not wrongly removed from their families, jobs, and communities.

Universal representation advances justice, while protecting Oregon families and the state’s economy. In the upcoming legislative session, lawmakers should enact universal representation.