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Welcoming and legalizing immigrants, an investment in America's future

President Obama had it right when he outlined his federal reform proposal earlier this year and stated that immigration, at its core, is about people; adding that we must not forget that "we used to be them."

In other words, "we" Americans, with the exception of Native Americans, should remember that that we are all the descendants of immigrant communities. Today's immigrants are simply America's newest newcomers.

I've been keeping that in mind as I consider federal immigration efforts that will ultimately identify and account for the estimated 11 million people that are undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. today.

The ultimate goal of immigration reform, in my view, is to provide these people with an opportunity to join the mainstream by legalizing their immigration status, and then allow them to apply for legal permanent residency and eventually a chance for U.S. citizenship. Because most undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today came for no other reason but to work and contribute to American society, including its economy, they deserve the opportunity to come "out of the shadows" and receive the full protections and benefits offered under the law.

Allowing undocumented immigrants to earn their legal status benefits our economy by providing businesses with a stable and dedicated workforce. In order to grow and prosper, businesses need a reliable pool of workers. Unless you're an unscrupulous employer, and most are not, the last thing you need is for your employees to live in fear of apprehension and potential deportation.

Legalizing the undocumented population lets us know who is living within our nation's borders. That's important, of course, if we expect to keep the bad people out and the people of America safe.

Plus, our government institutions need to know who's living here and whether they are all paying their fair share of taxes— though you might be surprised to know that a significant number of undocumented immigrants voluntarily pay state and federal income taxes every year, knowing full well they will never receive social security or other worker benefits.

Legalizing the undocumented work force would help us maintain a healthy and vibrant economy in other ways. Workeremployer relationships, at their best, are built on bonds of trust. Workers need to know that they'll be treated fairly and that they'll be able to share in the fruits of their labor. Furthermore, a legal workforce helps to ensure they'll receive equal protection under our labor laws.

The rules created by federal immigration reform must be similarly fair, equitable and understandable for businesses and employees alike.

Some have recommended that undocumented workers in the U.S. be required to pay an application fee to legalize their status, adding that if they owe back taxes that those must be paid, as should any necessary and practicable fines. If such fees, fines and taxes are imposed they must be reasonable and not unnecessarily punitive. Likewise, if workers and employers are expected to verify someone's eligibility to work in the U.S., the system used to do that has to be reliable.

The fairness question is important because our entire U.S. economic system is built on the idea that we're all offered an even playing field and anyone who works hard enough can earn a chance to rise to the top. That concept must be honored by federal immigration reform.

Consider that 40% of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. today were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Who's to say that the next founder of a future Fortune 500 company isn't among the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. today?

Further, I believe that legalizing the immigration status of the undocumented honors another core American value: keeping families together.

The truth is that immigrant families very often include legal immigrants, undocumented immigrants, and children, spouses or other relatives who were born in the U.S.

The precise definition of what constitutes the modern American family may be evolving, but the vast majority of us agrees and understands that families are the foundation of every major institution in the U.S.

Let's continue to build and support the American family and the U.S. economy by keeping immigrant families together and allowing them to invest in the future of America.

Daniel R. Ortega is an attorney in Phoenix and the Immediate Past Chairman of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest and most infl uential Latino advocacy group in the nation.

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