An informed local perspective on the Immigration debate

 

by Mike Kroll

 

Liz Voyles operates New World Immigration Service here in Galesburg. She has worked with immigrants, both legal and illegal, for 15 years now. First as an aide to Congressman Lane Evans handling immigration issues for his constituents. Since 1994 Liz has operated New World where she “assists those dreaming of one-day becoming Americans.” She helps explain the process, leads her clients through the blizzard of paperwork and coaches then across the many hurdles. In addition to individual immigrants Voyles also works directly with businesses and other organizations to help handle immigration issues for employers and even colleges.

“Most people are amazed that I run a business like this from a place like Galesburg. What they don't realize is that Illinois home to the fourth largest population of immigrants in the U.S. Only California, Florida and Texas (in that order) have larger immigrant populations.” Voyles sees the immigration issue from multiple up-close perspectives and is frankly confused about what all the fuss is about right now. “I just don't see what has suddenly made this such a key political issue right now. While many point to security issues post 9-11 I just don't see the connection. The focus has been almost entirely on Hispanic immigration from Mexico yet no one has ever documented any connections to terrorists accessing this country that way. And while illegal immigrants are breaking American law when they come here that is nothing new, far more of the ancestors of most Americans arrived to this country illegally than legally.”

While Voyles gets calls daily from people who think that some new law has been passed she keeps telling them that not only has nothing changed yet, but she seriously doubts much will ever come out of this current debate. “This whole political debate has absolutely no foundation in immigration reality. Everytime Washington, D.C. fiddles with immigration issues they simply created more problems and solve nothing. Anyone who understands the real issues knows that much of the American economy is dependent upon maintaining the status quo. The majority of the illegal immigrants working in this country today are employed in three areas: agriculture, low-skill production and service industries. Most are hard, productive workers despite substandard wages. There is much truth to the statement that they hold jobs other Americans won't take because the employers of these illegals don't pay enough to attract most legal workers.”

“Ask yourself this, given the current world economy can these American employers compete if they paid competitive wages and benefits? The President and many in Congress say they fear increasing the minimum wage would destroy American small businesses yet many illegal workers aren't paid near the present minimum wage. Those that are paid the minimum wage not only get no benefits but they also pay higher taxes than legal workers. All of us benefit from lower prices that would rise substantially if somehow we swept away all illegal workers who are a big part of America's working class today.”

“Did you know that most of the active social security numbers in today's American economy belong to dead people? The most important piece of documentation needed by an illegal immigrant worker is a social security number and the going price for a fraudulent social security card bearing the number of a deceased American is ten bucks. According to the Social Security Administration's own data they collected more than $7 billion in payroll taxes in 2003 from over 8.8 million workers who used mismatched social security numbers. And that doesn't include all the federal and state income tax that was withheld from these same paychecks of people who will never claim the tax refund most are due or obtain disability or retirement benefits from social security. It burns me up when I hear how illegal immigrants are getting a free ride in this country, they paid well for a ticket that's just not in their name.”

Politicians have long recognized the business interest in the availability of illegal immigrants. Why do you think so few businesses are ever accused of violating rules against hiring undocumented workers? In 1986 the Immigration Control Act was passed specifically to target illegal immigration from Mexico. The act criminalized hiring illegal workers and established fines and penalties for companies violating the law. Despite thousands of immigration raids annually since then with thousands of illegal workers rounded up and deported only three employers were accused violating the law in 2004, the last year with available data.

Voyles also questions the logistics of enacting any real immigration reform. “Even if Congress or the President determined that the economy be damned, 'we're going to round up the illegal immigrants and ship them out,' the task just couldn't be done. The 1986 Act created a one-year amnesty program that was poorly thought out and never properly implemented because the Federal bureaucracy simply wasn't up to it. All the additional paper work clogged up the system and delayed everything going through immigration at the time. Can you imagine what demands would be placed on the bureaucracy if they were suddenly tasked to identify, round-up and deport every illegal immigrant now in this country? Just counting those who are working and some estimate we are dealing with over 20 million and growing. Add in dependents and make your own estimate. It would be an impossible task and I can't imagine what it would cost to implement.”

“The people in this country have to come to the realization that leaving things as they are is better for the longterm health of the American economy as well as our standard of living. There are numerous small fixes or tweaking that can and should be done to our immigration law to make it fairer and simpler to enforce. There is no advantage to anyone to making the immigration process protracted and cumbersome but if we make it too easy or grant another form of amnesty we will just create more problems. We need to establish a system of documentation that works and is at least as resistant to counterfeiting as American currency. Most of all we need to recognize that fairness is critical, there can longer be room for prejudice in American immigration policy.”

 

A history of U. S. immigration policy

 

By Mike Kroll

 

The United States of America is a nation of immigrants. People from around the world have gathered in America for at least the last half century, and most probably longer. What may surprise you is that before 1882, when the blatantly racist Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law, almost anyone could come to the U.S. and eventually establish citizenship. The immigration law that we follow today was passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 at a time when a growing sense of shame over civil rights in this country led to reform of an immigration policy that reflected the basest of bigotry and prejudice. At the time few foresaw just how far reaching those changes would be yet it is ironic that today there is once again a clamor for immigration reform spurred by fear and motivated by thinly disguised prejudice toward Hispanics.

The first relevant Federal law concerning immigration was the 1790 Naturalization Act that established the legal procedure to become a naturalized American. This law mere defined the process of naturalization dictated by the Constitution and reflected it's time by permitting only “free white persons” of “good moral character” to apply for citizenship after two years residence. Basically you were welcome only if you were a European male (woman were seen as dependents and having no independent vote citizenship was irrelevant) and not indentured as a servant or apprentice.

In 1790 the length of residence was increased to five years and the naturalization process was changed to force a declaration of intent, called your “first papers,” that could be made after two years of residence but required an additional three years before you could renounce your former citizenship and pledge and oath of allegiance to the United States. This two step process remains today. Five years later the naturalization process was changed once again to lengthen it to at least 14 years of residence with the declaration of intent formally made at least five years prior to achieving citizenship. Even back then national security was cited as the reason for these changes while most historians now say the real motivation was to help maintain the then-dominant Federalist party who feared the influx of Irish immigrants would support the opposing Democratic-Republicans.

The Chinese Exclusion Act reflected the predominant racism of its time not unlike the focus of today's parallel immigration debate on Hispanics. Huge numbers of Chinese immigrated to the U.S. Due to both political unrest and the prospect of wealth in the west, particularly building railroads but also included gold mining in California. The act banned new ethnically Chinese immigrants for ten years regardless of their last country of residence and joined similar immigration bans targeting Chinese in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In 1892 this act was extended and strengthened by requiring Chinese residents to carry a residence permit and grossly limiting their legal rights. To its shame these policies were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court a year later. In 1917 the aptly named Asian Barred Zone Act extended this immigration ban to cover most Asian countries as was forced through overwhelmingly despite the veto of President Woodrow Wilson and followed an informal agreement with Japan to block Japanese immigration to the U.S.

In 1921 and then 1924 additional Immigration laws were passed that for the first time established nationality-based quotas and sought to place a cap on the total number of new immigrants to the U.S. Both reflected the isolationist movement here following the First World War and created quotas that greatly favored western and norther Europe.  Many lawmakers were influenced by what was then referred to as “racial hygiene” in a 1916 book entitle The Passing of the Great Race by eugenicist Madison Grant. Views that would soon lead a defeated Germany to a new leader possessing an even more efficient sense of racial hygiene. We should be reminded that between the wars Antisemitism and other prejudices were just as alive on both sides of the Atlantic but due to the economic exigencies of American agriculture no limits were placed on Hispanic immigrants crossing our now infamous southern border with Mexico. It was just that while inter-marriage between various white Europeans was viewed as a problem no reasonable legislator could imagine such race mixing between whites and blacks or Hispanics or Asians. It would be unthinkable!

While the immigration quotas were altered during the Korean War and the ban on Asian immigration was lifted, albeit permitting only small quotas, in 1943-- it wasn't until the 1965 Immigration Act that this quota system was dismantled. Alas, that same well-intentioned Act also placed limitation on Mexican immigration for the first time as the cap on total immigrants was not lifted with the quotas. Following this Act the proportion of Asian and Latin American immigration increased substantially while European immigration dropped off. According to INS statistics by 1988 Asia accounted for 41 percent of legal immigrants while Europe claimed only 10 percent, while in 1955 those numbers were 8 and 50 respectively.

Curiously, there has never been much attention focused on Canadian immigration, legal or otherwise. While the nature of illegal immigration precludes hard numbers, many experts estimate that contrary to popular believe half of all current illegal immigration is done across the Canadian border. “We have just as many illegal Canadian immigrants in the U.S. today as Hispanic but they largely go undetected,” notes Liz Voyles. “The key difference is that Canadians blend in by skin color, language and education. While immigrants from Europe, Africa and Asia have to cross oceans to get here and Hispanics have to cross a patrolled Mexican border immigration from Canada is virtually effortless!”

 

 

05/11/06