Immigration facts: Any bipartisan reform must be based on reality

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Immigration reform is on the front burner in Washington. As the debate heats up, Americans will have to separate fact from fiction.

An estimated 11 million people live in the United States illegally, 160,000 of them in Pennsylvania. Some were legal visitors who didn't leave when their visas ran out.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll says that 23 percent of Americans think all illegal aliens should be deported. For this group, immigration reform means tighter border security, not a path to citizenship. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed said some undocumented workers should be allowed to stay.

The poll suggests there is room for debate but that compromise won't be easy. A group of senators is working on bipartisan reform.

People who want illegal immigrants deported note that being undocumented is a crime. They argue that letting them stay is unfair to people who want to move here legally. They also say illegal immigrants take jobs away from Americans, push down wages, increase crime and drain social services.

New York Times economics columnist Adam Davidson wrote that in places where large numbers of illegal immigrants live, they strain social services, schools and medical care. But, he noted, "all economists, of all political persuasions, agree that immigrants -- those here legally or not -- benefit the overall economy."

According to experts, Mr. Davidson wrote, illegal immigrants depress wages for unskilled workers without high school diplomas. But they increase productivity and raise wages for skilled workers, resulting in a net wage gain overall. They also contribute $15 billion a year to Social Security and collect only $1 billion in benefits.

The effect illegal immigrants have on crime is unclear. The Center for Immigration Studies reviewed data in 2009 and concluded that "it is simply impossible to draw a clear conclusion about immigrants and crime."

The debate about immigration reform must acknowledge that the United States is not going to deport 11 million people. It would take too long and cost too much.

The real debate is about how many immigrants get to stay and under what conditions. That needs to be measured, balanced and based on fact.

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