We all know that immigration — legal and unauthorized — has been a hot-button topic for a while now. This is the case even before President Obama has even seriously tackled the question of immigration reform. One of the key points of contention has been whether immigrants contribute more to American society than they receive in social services.

In recent weeks, a few new studies try to shed some more light on this question and in the process, inject a little objectivity and data into an otherwise emotionally-charged debate. The first report comes from the non-partisan Fiscal Policy Institute and as described at the Immigration Impacts blog at the Immigration Policy Center, the economic contributions of immigrants constitute a net benefit for their communities:

The report studies the 25 largest metro areas (by population) which produce nearly one half of the total gross domestic product of the country. It shows that in the country’s main metropolises, the share of the immigrant population stacks up neatly against their share of economic output. For example, immigrants are responsible for 20% of economic output and make up 20% of the population in these 25 metropolitan areas. In other words, immigrants pull their own weight.

From the report: . . . “From the Pittsburgh metro area, where immigrants make up 3 percent of the population and 4 percent of economic output, to the Miami metro area, where immigrants represent 37 percent of all residents and 38 percent of economic out¬put, immigrants are playing a consistently proportionate role in local economies.”

A second newly-released report comes from the Migration Policy Institute and examines the economic impacts of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. Again as described by the Immigration Impacts blog, the report finds that considering the costs and benefits associated with unauthorized immigrants, both cancel each other out in the end:

The overall impact of illegal immigration on the U.S. economy is small. According to [Economics Professor Gordon Hanson, the report’s author], “Illegal immigration produces a tiny net gain to the U.S. economy after subtracting U.S.-born workers’ losses from U.S. employers’ gains. And if we account for the small fiscal burden that unauthorized immigrants impose, the overall economic benefit is close enough to zero to be essentially a wash.”

Enforcement against illegal immigration is expensive. The U.S. spends approximately $15 billion annually enforcing immigration laws. A simple cost-benefit analysis indicates that the high level of spending on enforcement is not justified. . . .

MPI policy analyst Marc Rosenblum and Jeanne Butterfield of the National Immigration Forum largely agreed with Hanson, but took the argument a step further, making a strong case for legalization . . . Rosenblum pointed out that the net fiscal impact of illegal immigrants improves over time—immigrants are not only workers, but consumers, entrepreneurs, and investors, and their contributions improve over time.

This particular report basically confirms earlier research that show that legal immigrants constitute a notable net gain for American society and its economy and that taken together, unauthorized immigrants also contribute more both in the short term (through paying sales taxes, income taxes, overall purchasing power, and entrepreneurial activities) and long term (by becoming productive citizens and not having to rely on public assistance).

Finally, at New America Media, a third article on the contributions of immigrants points out that as the laws currently exist, legal immigrants are prohibited from using Medicaid (the federal healthcare program for low-income Americans), even though they pay federal taxes that help to fund such programs and that in essence, recent legal immigrants are subsidizing healthcare for everyone else:

Currently, legal immigrants, who work and pay taxes that contribute to our health care system will continue to be ineligible to receive federally-funded Medicaid services for five years. In this case, we are not talking about those who make at least 133 percent of federal poverty level and could access affordability credits like everyone else for purchasing insurance in the exchange. We are talking about immigrants with the lowest incomes. It is unreasonable and saddening that under the current health reform proposals, the people who really need it will not get it.

I am under no delusions that these reports and data will change the mind of hard-core or extremist opponents of immigration (legal and unauthorized) anytime soon. Rather, for those who are willing to consider valid, reliable, and nonpartisan research, these studies are useful in wading through some of the political ideology and seeing what the actual numbers say.

With that in mind, the time for comprehensive immigration reform has come. By comprehensive, it means that we need to focus on more than just reinforcing our border with Mexico. Instead, it also means overhauling our immigration detention system, which, a new bipartisan report finds, has a long and documented history of bureaucratic lapses, with the detainees routinely denied basic rights such as being told why they are being held.

It also means providing unauthorized citizens already in country with a path toward eventual citizenship and access to opportunities to achieve social and economic mobility, such as the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act (currently being debated in Congress) that would allow young immigrants without legal status who demonstrate “good moral character” to apply for citizenship.

Comprehensive immigration reform is particularly relevant and important these days as American society and the world in general continues to wrestle with the benefits and drawbacks of globalization and living in an increasingly interconnected world. As a new book titled Immigrant, Inc.: Why Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Driving the New Economy (and how they will save the American worker) describes:

Both a revelation and a call-to-action, Immigrant, Inc. explores the uncommon skill and drive of America’s new immigrants and their knack for innovation and entrepreneurship. From the techies who created icons of the new economy — Intel, Google, eBay and Sun Microsystems — to the young engineers tinkering with solar power and next-generation car batteries, immigrants have proven themselves to be America’s competitive advantage . . . [and] will create the American jobs of the future — if we let them.

That last part seems to be the key — immigrants have much to contribute to American society and our economy, if only we let them do so, rather than trying to get rid of them.

In these tough economic times, Americans from all kinds of backgrounds are hurting financially. There seems to be depression reports in the news almost every day. Reports in the media have also focused a lot of attention on layoffs at large corporations, many of whom are shedding employees by the thousands. With that in mind, it may lead many of us to presume that middle class Whites are getting hit the hardest in this recession.

Certainly, many middle class Whites and their families are feeling the brunt of the recession and many find themselves struggling to make ends meet for the first time in their lives. However, as MSNBC reports, the data shows that on the aggregate level, it’s actually Blacks and Latinos that are being hit the hardest by the current recession:

Last hired, first fired: This generations-old cliche rings bitterly true for millions of Latinos and blacks who are losing jobs at a faster rate than the general population during this punishing recession. Much of the disparity is due to a concentration of Latinos and blacks in construction, blue-collar or service-industry jobs that have been decimated by the economic meltdown. . . .

Since the recession began in December 2007, Latino unemployment has risen 4.7 percentage points, to 10.9%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Black unemployment has risen 4.5 points, to 13.4%. White unemployment has risen 2.9 points, to 7.3%. . . .

William Darity, a Duke University professor, said that “blacks and Latinos are relative latecomers to the professional world … so they are necessarily the most vulnerable.” . . .

“Not saying that it’s racism,” [an executive search consultant] said, “but if a manager or a senior executive is looking at a slate of individuals and has to let one of them go, chances are he or she will not let the person go that they spend a lot of time with at the country club or similar places.”

My point is not to play the “Oppression Olympics” and to argue that this group is much better off than another group, or one group is more oppressed than another. Instead, I would like to place these findings in a larger sociological context.

Many Americans feel that our society, while still not a perfect meritocracy, offers Americans from all backgrounds the best opportunities for success and achieving the American dream than at any time in our history — that the playing field is more level and equal now than it’s ever been.

I would agree that the opportunities for socioeconomic success are the most equal that they’ve ever been in American history. But that does not mean that everybody is on an equal playing field. Instead, what this MSNBC article and other sociological studies have shown is that Blacks and Latinos continue to experience particular institutional disadvantages in their efforts to achieve economic equality with Whites.

Specifically, as the article points out, Blacks and Latinos tend to be disproportionately located in service and manual labor industries. Beyond the fact that these industries tend to pay lower wages in general, they are also highly vulnerable in times of economic recession and we’re seeing this play out right now. As such, Blacks and Latinos experience their first disadvantage.

Their second disadvantage is that even for Blacks and Latinos who have professional occupations that normally are well-paying, again as the article points out, they are relative newcomers to such occupations and as such, when layoffs come, they are more likely to lose their jobs due to the “last hired, first fired” principle.

The third point of disadvantage is that due to the legacy of systematic discrimination in the past, Blacks and Latinos have been unable to accumulate the same level of family wealth compared to Whites. This is even despite the fact that while the income gap between Whites and Blacks and Latinos has declined, the wealth gap has actually increased in the past several decades.

This wealth gap is important because it provides a cushion or barrier to soften loss of employment and other financial difficulties. Therefore, because Blacks and Latinos have less accumulated wealth than Whites, they have a much smaller cushion to fall back on and therefore, are more susceptible to financial catastrophes.

Ultimately, these institutional disadvantages play a large part in why Blacks and Latinos seem to struggle more than Whites or Asian Americans when it comes to achieving economic success. They may be well-educated, motivated, and hard-working, but they also have to overcome more structural inequalities and barriers that make them more financially vulnerable in times of recession.