"In this economy, it's really important that we do something to help and protect workers and improve workers' rights, and you can't do that as long as you have some 12 million people flying below the radar screen," said Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Immigration Law Foundation, an educational-charitable nonprofit dedicated to increasing public understanding of immigration law.
Johnson understands that many people believe a change in immigration law might push legal citizens out of their jobs, which he said isn't true. He said the illegal immigrants already have jobs.
"They're working shoulder to shoulder and living next door to U.S. citizens," he said. "When they lose their houses, that affects the houses of their neighbors. If they don't have rights to push back against employers who are looking to take advantage of them in these difficult times, then that affects the workers that are standing right next to them on the assembly line or in the construction industry."
Johnson said that legal workers pay more taxes, open bank accounts instead of keeping cash under their mattress and apply for credit to make big purchases like cars. All of that would benefit the economy, he said.
"These folks wield an enormous amount of purchasing power," he said.
Any debate about immigration is also likely to center on race, and bring up some long-running tensions.
"There are certainly folks whose opportunities and rights have been ignored long enough that they are assuming that their success depends on somebody else's failure," Johnson said. "But most people in the African-American community, certainly most leaders in the African-American community, know the answers to those problems are not to ask for people to fight for scraps falling off the table. It's to give African-Americans the job opportunities, the job training and the incentives they need to succeed."
Annette Bernhardt, policy co-director of the New York-based National Employment Law Project, said there are "a lot of ways that our dysfunctional immigration policy hurts people.
"But one of the most pernicious is how lack of status plays out in the workplace," she said. "It really disempowers workers in their ability to claim their rights because of the fear of the employee retaliation and reporting them to immigration."
Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of NDN, a Washington, D.C.-based progressive think-tank and advocacy group that is pushing for change in immigration law, also agreed. He said that letting illegal immigrants move down the path to legal work and citizenship will help all workers.
"If anything, it will help low-end workers across the country because it would remove the trapdoor under the minimum wage," he said. Right now, these workers are "driving down wages for you. They are creating unfair competition."
Rosenberg said immigration reform is not going to cause an influx of new immigrants into the country.
"You against an illegal worker, you lose that fight every time," he said. "The worst possible thing for American workers is to have a vast pool of undocumented immigrants in the United States."
There are some business owners who say immigration changes would only increase the cost of doing business and drive up prices for all.