Illegal immigrants caught on the US-Mexican border. At least 3,100 people have died trying to cross into the US

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US mayors concerned about
collapse of immigration reform

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

16 July 2007: The collapse last month of US immigration reform legislation in June 2007 heightened concerns of mayors. “We will not have an economy, we will not have an America without a constant stream of immigrants coming into this country,” New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg told the New York Post newspaper. Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigoas set up a special commission to explore ways his city can deal with illegal, but necessary, immigrant workers.

| Current situation | Current law | Failed legislation | Deportation | Divisiveness |

Elsewhere, in the small city of Georgetown, Delaware (population 4900) mayor Mike Wyatt responded to the failure of the immigration reform bill by saying, "The economy of Georgetown… I would hate to imagine what it would be like without the Hispanic workers. They are the ones keeping it going."

Given the reliance of local economies on undocumented immigrant workers and the bitterness of the debate in the US, it is helpful to examine the issue in more depth.

Current situation
An estimated 10 to 15 million undocumented people currently live in the US. Even though undocumented workers come to the US from many countries, Latinos from Central America, especially Mexico, are the largest group and pay the heaviest price.

There is no one type of illegal immigrant. They are younger, older, men, women, mothers, and fathers. They work primarily in agriculture, landscaping, and different types of construction work, and also in restaurants, hospitality, housekeeping, and childcare. In other words, they permeate the lower-wage economy.

Recent federal raids in food-processing plants and other businesses have resulted in the arrest and deportation of more than 100,000 undocumented immigrants. These raids have highlighted the nation’s need for their labor. After a recent raid by federal agents in Portland, Oregon caught 167 illegal immigrants, Portland mayor Tom Potter said that arresting local workers who are “filling the demand of local business for their labor is bad policy.”

Current law
Presently, it is very difficult for someone who is undocumented to get legal status in the US. There are three common routes.

First, there is the route through a family member, a US citizen, or permanent resident who can sponsor a foreign national. This is the easiest and most common way.  The second way is through an employment-related visa. The third way is through a claim of asylum, which means that an individual fears that his or her native government would persecute them upon their return or has persecuted them in the past for political or other specified reasons.

There are also about ten other laws that are much more specific and geared to discrete groups of people. For example, there’s a special law dealing with Central Americans who entered the US before October 1990 during the Cuban boatlifts to Florida. If a person in this category has been in the US for 10 years or longer, and an immediate family member would suffer ‘exceptional and extremely unusual hardship’ if he or she was deported, that person could get legal status. But proving exceptional hardship is a very difficult standard to meet, and an illustration of the restrictive nature of the special immigration laws.

Failed legislation
The federal legislation that collapsed in June 2007 in the US Senate would have provided anyone who arrived in the US before 1 January 2007 with an opportunity to obtain legal status, which allows them to apply first for permanent residence and ultimately US citizenship.

To get legal status (what is referred to as a Z-Visa) people would have had to pay legal fees and fines of upwards of US$10,000. They would also have had to prove that they paid their income taxes back to the date when they first entered the US.

They would also have been required, somewhere around the eighth year in the process, to go through naturalization, which is a test that shows they can read, write, and speak English and answer specific questions dealing with American history and civic knowledge. A criminal background check was also required. People with certain types of criminal convictions would also have been automatically excluded.

Since 2005, the enforcement of immigration laws has increased nationally. Mayors have responded by declaring their communities Sanctuary Cities and adopting other actions both supporting and stigmatizing illegal immigrants.

For undocumented workers the reality is quite frightening. With the collapse of federal immigration reform, undocumented workers now have no avenue to gain legal status in the US. They dread the proverbial ‘knock on the door’ by federal agents ready to arrest them and deport them to their country of origin.

People who are caught are taken to a federal detention center, often in a different city from where they live and work, and usually given a choice of leaving the US voluntarily or having a hearing before an immigration judge. They are required to post a bond that can run from a minimum of $1,500 to upwards of $10,000. If they don’t post that bond, they will remain incarcerated while they go through the removal and deportation court process.  Unless they can fit into one of the categories specified by immigration law - and the vast majority of those arrested cannot - they will be ordered deported by the immigration court. People who are arrested and detained and ordered to pay a bond, but cannot come up with the money, are generally deported within one to two months. For those who pay the bond, cases can last a year of longer.

Perhaps the biggest objection to undocumented workers in the US has to do with the burden on taxpayers: that they increase the costs of health, education, and public welfare. Yet every credible study indicates that undocumented workers contribute far more to the economy than they take out of it. Most pay taxes and spend their money locally.

The other main objection has to do with legality. When a person crosses the US border without immigration documents, they are committing a crime that is punishable by imprisonment. By law, such people are not entitled to any public benefits extended to citizens or legal residents.

The grey area in the debate over immigration in the US has to do with right or wrong and America’s moral obligations.

The North American Free Trade Agreement has disrupted the Mexican economy since it was implemented in 1994. For example, cheap US corn has flooded Mexico because various tariffs were removed. Now, one-third of the tortillas made in Mexico are made from corn grown in the US, and 1.5 million Mexican corn farmers are out of work.

Similarly, in 1993, the US initiated two programs along the US border called Operation Hold the Line and Operation Gatekeeper. The programs were designed to discourage Latinos from crossing illegal into major urban areas.  Hundreds of miles of guarded fences along the US-Mexican border essentially funneled crossers to dangerous, sparsely-populated areas of the desert.

At least 3,100 people have died trying to enter the US through the desert over the past ten years. By comparison, only 239 people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall during its 28 years of existence.

In other words, the immigration debate in the US is not only economic. It’s also about fear-mongering, racism, and neo-colonialism. When New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg calls the collapse of immigration reform “tragic,” he is talking about the human tragedy as well as the economic tragedy. And he is speaking for many US mayors who believe that the US should be taking down fences, not building them.

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