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Immigrants Add Billions to GDP Yet ‘Constantly Under Threat,’ Says Organizer

Argentinian immigrant Beatriz Maya has devoted her career to helping fellow Latinos — both immigrants and natives — build productive, successful lives in the United States. As the founder of La Conexion de Wood County, she helps provide capacity building and cultural activities, language education, and advocacy for an estimated 20,000 people in rural Ohio. The work has allowed her to understand both the challenges that immigrants face and the ways in which they benefit the economy.

Maya first came to the United States in 1988 to study political science at the University of Connecticut. While in school, she met her husband, a student from Puerto Rico. After graduation, he was offered a job teaching at Bowling Green State University, and they moved to Ohio.

For the next 20 years, Maya worked with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), advocating for migrant farm workers. She also became a U.S. citizen. When she left FLOC in 2012, she realized that there was little organized support for the growing Hispanic population south of the Toledo area. In addition to working as migrant farmworkers, Hispanics are employed year-round at dairy farms and poultry plants, in restaurants, and by construction and cleaning companies. Maya founded La Conexion de Wood County in 2013 to serve all of them, regardless of their immigration status.

Maya does not like the term “undocumented immigrants.” Instead, she prefers the new term “undocumentable,” since that draws attention to the larger problem: “Many want to be documented more than anything,” she says, “but the current situation does not allow it. Under the current law, they are not eligible.”

This economy has benefited from immigrants, but they are constantly under threat.

According to a report by the Pew Research Center, 11 million undocumented immigrants reside in the United States. Of those, an estimated 66 percent have been in the country for a decade or more. Maya calls it unconscionable that people should have been here for so long, working and raising families, but still lack legal status. “This economy has benefited from immigrants, but they are constantly under threat,” she says.

A 2013 study by the Center for American Progress compared the economic effects of doing nothing for undocumented immigrants with the benefits of creating a clear path to citizenship. The study found that the gains from allowing citizenship were significant, with an estimated $1.4 trillion increase in U.S. gross domestic product over 10 years compared with an $830 billion increase without any immigration reform.

There are thought to be about 98,000 undocumented immigrants in Ohio, according to a study by New American Economy. Many have married, raised families, and pay into the economic system, including to social security. New American Economy reports that the roughly 18,000 immigrant residents in Ohio’s Fifth Congressional District — documented and undocumented combined — paid $183.9 million in taxes in 2014 and held $500.8 million in spending power. Statewide, the American Immigration Council reports that Latinos make up 3.3 percent of the population, equating to some 383,000 people who combined yielded $8.8 billion in purchasing power and paid $1.5 billion in taxes.

“The United States was built by immigrants,” Maya says. Now, as that population shrinks due to U.S. immigration policies, she is seeing the economic damage to northwestern Ohio, where Wood County is situated. Farmers, who rely on immigrant labor, are finding it difficult to recruit workers, who fear a possible workplace immigration raid and their deportation. Without a sufficient labor force, some farmers are facing a seemingly impossible choice: sell their farm, downsize, or leave crops to rot in the field. “Little by little, we are destroying our agriculture in the United States. If we continue with these policies, soon we will have to import all of our vegetables and fruits. The American public needs to know that,” Maya says.

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