For decades, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Indians, Koreans, and even a few Irish and Norwegians, among others, have lived and worked among us, paying taxes, buying homes, sending their children to school - all without the protections afforded by legal documents.
Their labors are exploited. They can't drive or board airplanes legally. They are not eligible to collect Social Security upon retirement, even if they have paid into the system through fake papers. They live in fear of disruptions that can spiral downward into devastation for those without proper documents: the routine traffic stop, which can lead to deportation; the death of a parent in a distant land, which requires travel across borders.
Jose Antonio Vargas, a former reporter who has become an advocate for immigration reform, wrote about learning of his status as an undocumented immigrant only when he went to apply for a driver's license as a teenager. His grandparents, who were naturalized citizens from the Philippines, had never told him that they had conspired to bring him into the country illegally in order to give him a better life.
But some of the most compelling reasons to put people like Vargas, Americans in almost every respect, on the path to citizenship have to do with the benefits that would accrue to the rest of us. Yes, immigration reform is a compassionate policy. It's also a very practical one that provides substantial assistance to the economy.
Business executives already know that. They depend on well-educated immigrants for their science and engineering expertise; they also depend on low-skilled immigrants to do the jobs that Americans don't want to do.
In addition, immigrants, legal and illegal, have helped the United States remain youthful, in contrast to its rapidly aging peers among industrialized nations.
Look at Japan. A stunning 23 percent of its population is 65 or older. A cultural resistance to outsiders has exacerbated its problems: It remains hostile toward immigrants, despite the fact that it needs younger workers.
Several Western European countries haven't fared much better. In Greece, for example, 19 percent of the population is 65 or older. That helps to explain its dismal economy, which doesn't have enough younger workers paying taxes to support its retirees.
The United States, by contrast, sees itself as a nation of immigrants. Because of more recent waves of newcomers, this country's retirees account for just 13 percent of the population. Imagine how vicious the fights over cuts to Social Security and Medicare would be if we had fewer young workers to pay the tab.
Most of America's undocumented workers have shown their allegiance to this country. We ought to show our appreciation by putting them on a path to citizenship. After all, we need them.
Cynthia Tucker is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. E-mail her at email@example.com.