As the lead editorial in The Nation noted last week, the recent maelstrom surrounding Governor Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to issue driver licenses to undocumented immigrants revealed the fear-mongering and racism that too often characterizes the so-called “immigration debate.” It illustrated once again the desperate need to overcome the demagoguing and engage in an informed conversation – all the more challenging as people feel increasing economic anxiety and dislocation.

That’s why a report released recently by the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI) – Working for a Better Life: A Profile of Immigrants in the New York Economy – is such a critical contribution at this moment. FPI does rigorous analysis to promote public policies that create a strong economy in which prosperity is broadly shared by all New Yorkers. This report reveals that immigrants – making up 21 percent of the state’s residents – added $229 billion to the New York State economy in 2006, representing 22.4 percent of the state’s Gross Domestic Product.

“These figures should wipe away any impression that immigrants are holding the New York economy back,” said David Dyssegaard Kallick, senior fellow of the Fiscal Policy Institute and principal author of the report. “In fact, immigrants are a central component of New York’s economic growth.” And Kallick told me, “The debate around immigration has gotten so overheated that it’s become difficult to distinguish myth and hyperbole from simple reality….”

According to the report, New York City immigrants make up 37 percent of the population and 46 percent of the labor force. They are more likely than U.S.-born residents to live in families in the middle-income brackets. Immigrants represent 25 percent of CEOs who live in New York City, half of accountants, one-third of office clerks, one-third of receptionists, and one-third of building cleaners. In sector after sector, immigrants are found in the top, middle, and bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

In the downstate suburbs, 18 percent of all residents are foreign-born, with immigrants making up 23 percent of the labor force. More immigrants work as registered nurses than in any other occupation. 41 percent of physicians and surgeons in the downstate suburbs are foreign-born, as are 28 percent of college and university professors, 22 percent of accountants and auditors, and 19 percent of financial managers.

In upstate New York, five percent of the population is foreign-born, but immigrants play a disproportionately important role in some key areas: immigrants make up 20 percent of all professors; 35 percent of physicians and surgeons; 20 percent of computer software engineers and 13 percent of computer scientists and systems analysts. An estimated 80 percent of the seasonal workers who pick the crops are immigrants.

“This report clearly proves that immigrants fuel growth and vitality in every economic sector and every geographic area in New York,” said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of The New York Immigration Coalition.

“A wave of federal raids, ‘real ID’ cards, or English only ordinances may be intended just to affect undocumented immigrants, but the reality is that they tear apart families and communities,” Kallick told me. “If we create an anti-immigrant political climate, we run a very real risk of alienating exactly the people who are helping revitalize urban areas and contributing to economic growth….”

The report also finds that immigrants are subject to the same economic forces as everyone else in our increasingly polarized economy. “We can see that low-wage workers – both immigrants and U.S.-born – are not sharing in the economy’s growth,” said David R. Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society of NY. “The right answer is to enforce basic standards that are good for all low-wage workers, not to pit one group of workers against another.”

Andrea Batista Schlesinger, executive director of the Drum Major Institute, recently wrote, “The ‘immigration debate’ is a misnomer. The debate isn’t just about illegal immigrants. It’s not even just about immigrants. It’s about the future of America and the role of all American workers in that future…. recognizing the economic contributions of immigrants while strengthening their hand in the workplace can define a progressive agenda that will unite both immigrants and native workers.”

Yet we see in the presidential campaign that Republicans continue to fight over who will be “toughest on illegals”, and most of the Democratic candidates tiptoe around the issues to avoid saying anything that might be used against them by any interest group. Kallick noted, “The two leading candidates in the primaries are from New York. We hope this report will make them aware of what’s at stake as they fumble around for a position on immigration…. The right answer on immigration would include not just policies to help immigrants succeed, but also efforts to enforce labor laws and improve standards for all workers…. What we would hope for in a candidate is a leader who could wrench the discussion away from inflammatory talk radio and steer the country toward a sensible set of policies. We haven’t seen that from the front-runners yet. But there’s still time.”