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This article is part of a Special Section titled “CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS IN AMERICA” that ran in the August/September 2011 print issue of PA TIMES. Contact Editor Christine Jewett McCrehin ([email protected]) for more information on the print issue. See the Related Articles box for links to more articles from the Special Section.
“We define ourselves as a nation of immigrants–a nation that welcomes those willing to embrace America’s precepts,” said President Obama during a visit to El Paso, TX, as he addressed the nation’s daunting immigration issues.
America, as the president reminded, is a nation of immigrants. Most Americans can trace their ancestry to immigrants who journeyed to the United States in search of a better life. In recent years immigration has become one of the nation’s hot button topics with numerous bills being introduced in the United States Congress to address the growing concerns. Unfortunately, Congress has been dragging its feet on approving immigration reform. What we have seen has resulted due to the absence of a unified federal response, in some states moving forward unilaterally to implement laws designed in effect to remove illegal immigrants from that state and ultimately the country. This leaves many with the opinion that the land of dreams and opportunities is rejecting the very philosophy upon which it was founded.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 1,538 bills relating to immigrants and refugees were introduced in the first quarter of 2011. This record surpassed the 1,180 bills that were introduced in the first quarter of 2010. These bills were drafted both to benefit the lives of legal immigrants while clamping down on illegal immigration.
Over the last year Georgia, Utah, South Carolina and Alabama followed the prior lead of Arizona in implementing the nation’s strictest immigration laws. These laws allow police officers to make inquiries about an individual’s immigration status during routine traffic stops.
Although the need to clamp down on illegal immigration seems clear, the Obama Administration recently brought a lawsuit against the state of Alabama and plans on bringing lawsuits against Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Utah because of their tough immigration laws. The Administration’s position is that these laws interfere with the enforcement of federal immigration laws.
Opponents of enactment of state immigration laws, claim they are fundamentally designed to disrupt the daily lives of illegal immigrants, such as in employment, housing, transportation and even school attendance. In rebuttal, state officials claim that the new laws do not prevent undocumented children from going to public schools, but rather the school, however, is merely required to keep a record of all the children whose parents are undocumented workers. Many legislators are in agreement that education, even for an illegal immigrant is important and should be accessible to everyone.
In fact, states such as Illinois, California, Connecticut and Maryland, along with nine others, have passed laws and implemented programs that make it uncomplicated and easy for illegal immigrants to pay for a college education. This year, Governors Pat Quinn of Illinois and Jerry Brown of California, signed into law a private funded scholarship program for undocumented college students. At the bill signing ceremony Governor Brown told reporters, “I’m committed to expanding opportunity wherever I can find it, and certainly these kinds of bills promote a goal of a more inclusive California and a more educated California.”
Perhaps one of the biggest issues with illegal immigration is the effect it has on the economy. Although it is extremely difficult to calculate the net economic impact, there is no doubt that illegal immigration costs the government millions of dollars each year in terms of services provided, e.g., education, emergency health support, and incarceration. According to Robin Baker’s Testimony to the Alternative hearing on Immigration, services provided to the then estimated 225,000 to 275,000 illegal immigrants who lived in Colorado in 2007, such as K-12 education, emergency health support and incarceration, cost the State an estimated $225 million in 2005. However, illegal immigrants paid on the average of between $159 million to $194 million in both state and local taxes, which compensated for about 70-86 percent of the $225 million. Therefore, 2005 illegal immigrants cost the State of Colorado between $31 million and $66 million for that particular year.
However, proponents argue that these illegal migrant workers are regarded as an impressionable component of the U.S. workforce, whose impact on the economy is minute and not burdensome.
It is apparent that the nation has a very apprehensive attitude towards the issue of immigration. Currently the ICE (U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement) of the Obama Administration is cracking down on businesses that hire illegal immigrants. They recently launched an I-9 Auditing Program notifying businesses that they will be conducting audits to verify the companies’ I-9 Forms (Employment Eligibility Verification), which employers are required to have completed to verify the legal status of new employees. Consequently, charges have been already brought against some high profile companies which were forced to discharge hundreds of workers and pay thousands of dollars in fines.
Moreover, the Obama Administration is being heavily criticized for the controversial Secure Communities Program (federal fingerprinting program) which requires local police to forward fingerprints of everyone they arrest to U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The purpose of the program is to target criminals who are illegal immigrants and who pose a threat to the safety of the community. According to federal statistics, 2,670 immigrants were deported from Georgia between October, 2008, and April, 2011. Moreover, a third were deported for committing no crimes other than being in the country illegally. The other 1,271 only committed property crimes or misdemeanors. Needless to say, civil and immigrant rights activists are calling on the Obama Administration to eliminate the program that is aimed at deporting illegal immigrants.
On a more positive note, the Obama Administration is currently revising visa polices to make it easier for job-creators and entrepreneurs to receive temporary work visas and green cards as a way to help the U.S. economy to grow. The plan of the Administration is to make H-1B visas more accessible to foreign workers with specialized skills who want to start a business that provides products and services of interest to the Unites States. The goal, according to the director of the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services), Alejandro Mayorkas, is to process the H-1B visas within a few weeks, a process that usually takes years for certain categories.
While it is impossible to predict the status of immigration in the near future, assumedly, with the increase in immigration each year, there is a somewhat positive reaction in terms of fueling economic growth and cultural integration. However, current immigrants in the United States harbor a feeling of unwelcome based on state legislatures’ introducing stricter, tougher bills in order to ‘protect our borders.’ Despite these adversities, migrants still have a strong belief that they can live the American dream and contribute to the overall development of the nation. For this reason, increased immigration will continue to be an escalating issue of the nation until Congress decides to approve effective immigration reform that deals fairly with immigrants and refugees, and offers a uniform national solution for the many migrants who already call the Unites States home.
Wiha Powell is a graduate student at Florida International University. Email: [email protected]