There are 12 million shadows in America. They live, eat and work in this immigrant nation, yet they leave no documented record of their existence. Their presence is acknowledged, but not substantiated. They, like me, came to the United States in search of prosperity.

They, like me, stayed because they found a way to support themselves and their families, the ones they brought along and the ones they left behind. They, unlike me, stay in the shadows, remain unaccounted for, and live with the constant fear of deportation.

At my mother’s citizenship interview recently I realized the enormity of the issue. I looked around at the other faces in the waiting room at the Department of Homeland Security. The shadow immigrants were conspicuous by their absence.

These immigrants live and work among us just below the radar of official notice. Their children attend our public schools, their health care needs are attended to by our community hospitals and they pay sales tax on the food and clothes that are bought with their cash only transactions. These are the people who labor quietly in our fields, in our factories, in our homes, and on our cars for less than we would be willing.

The answer is not to ship these 12 million people out of the country, Arizona style. The ethical and economic graph of this country will plummet calamitously if that were to happen. Industries will decline, profit margins will dip and American society will have to bear the emotional burden of seeing families destroyed and torn apart.

The immigration reform issue, “the third rail” of American politics, has reminded legal immigrants, more so than others, of what is at stake.

Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio is in the process of defining his grand vision for undocumented workers. As one immigrant to another, Senator, you need to start with getting rid of the existing pejorative titles: “alien,” and “illegal.” They serve no real purpose other than to criminalize immigrants who came to this country for the same reasons you and I did.

Yes, it is necessary to enforce our borders. But, border security only serves to contain the problem to its current size.

What should we do with the 12 million currently living among us?

The only ethical solution lies in providing a quicker pathway to legalization. With the legitimization of 12 million, there will be an infusion of tax revenue into our much-needed coffers; we will not be burdened with the cost of education; and our doctors and hospitals will get compensated for the care that they give.

Isn’t it better to have people in our society grateful for what they’ve been given rather than resentful for what they were denied?

Jaya Padmanabhan is editor emeritus, contributing writer, and board member of India Currents. She is a veteran journalist, essayist, and fiction writer with over 250 published articles and short stories....