MINNEAPOLIS – “You cannot get a job. Maybe six or seven years ago you could get a cash job, now it is much harder. The situation of immigrants is a violation of basic human rights,” Manuel Fernandez, an immigrant from Central America, told Mint Press News. Like millions of undocumented immigrants or those with limited […]
MINNEAPOLIS – “You cannot get a job. Maybe six or seven years ago you could get a cash job, now it is much harder. The situation of immigrants is a violation of basic human rights,” Manuel Fernandez, an immigrant from Central America, told Mint Press News.
Like millions of undocumented immigrants or those with limited documentation, the ongoing impasse over comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. Senate is having an impact on immigrant families and the stagnant U.S. economy.
Impasse over reform
An estimated 100,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., earlier this month to demand comprehensive immigration reform for the more than 11.1 million undocumented immigrants currently living and working across the U.S. The strong demonstrations sent a message to the Senate ahead of a bipartisan immigration deal that is expected to be announced later this month.
In 2006, millions marched across the U.S. demanding amnesty and full rights for undocumented immigrants across the U.S., and the fight still continues.
The immigrants rights movement held mass demonstrations that year, reaching a peak in April, when organizers brought together mass marches of 300,000 in Chicago, 500,000 in Dallas, 500,000 in Los Angeles and millions more in more than 100 cities across the United States. The demands were for broad amnesty, recognition and dignity for undocumented workers.
That effort was channeled into advocacy for the so-called DREAM Act, which has yet to be fully adopted by Congress. The bipartisan Senate “gang of eight,” represented by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), continues to discuss the definition of “a clear path to citizenship,” including proposals requiring as long as 25 years for full U.S. citizenship.
Immigrants speak out
“You have 11-12 million undocumented immigrants. You promise that they will get papers in 10 years. It is a very strong violation of human rights based on international law. This is not a matter of one person, it involves families,” Fernandez said.
Indeed, the current discussions regarding immigration reform and a “clear path” to citizenship would require individuals to wait 10 years for green cards and an additional 15 years for full citizenship.
“You think people are going to wait 25 years? In just 10 years, imagine how much cheap labor that is going to produce,” Fernandez said. For many, the proposed Senate Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act offers few practical reforms that will end Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportations and difficulties obtaining driver’s licenses and work permits.
Most Americans, regardless of documentation status, support a much shorter five-year path to citizenship. According to a recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, a full 64 percent of Americans now support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. ThinkProgress reports this would not only help millions of immigrant families, but would significantly boost the economy with increases in tax revenue.
Granting citizenship after five years, a policy supported by a majority of poll respondents, would provide a boost of $1.1 trillion in economic growth, contribute $144 billion more in taxes and add $618 billion to all American incomes, according to the ThinkProgress study.
Beyond the dollars and cents calculations and labor statistics remains an immigration policy that millions believe is responsible for tearing families apart. “They say, ‘go home.’ It’s difficult when you have sons and daughters here; [when] you have a life here,” Fernandez said.
Risking life and limb
Like the first immigrants from Europe, undocumented immigrants risk their lives for better economic opportunities. Unlike the more open immigration system in the early 20th century, the immigration process has become much more difficult, forcing individuals to assume risks during perilous journeys to the United States.
“I came from El Salvador in 1990. I stayed since I came, my migration situation was about finding someone who you pay, who takes you through borders,” Francisco Segovia told Mint Press News. “We ended up in Florida where my mother used to live. I later moved to Minneapolis, because I knew a friend [there].”
“To move up here means that you had to borrow money to pay for the trip. Your families, your relatives are hoping to make it through to repay your debt and send some money home to support your relatives,” Segovia said.
Segovia immigrated during the El Salvador’s 1979-1992 civil war, and like most, left behind conditions of poverty and civil strife.
“Once you make it through, hopefully you make it. You have to think about friends and relatives you know and figure out how to find a job as soon as possible. There are people who will support you for a short period,” Segovia said.
“You are thinking about three things: Don’t get sick, don’t get picked up by immigration and third, find a job. In most cases people will try to find as many jobs as possible. At first you can’t negotiate, you just take whatever you can get,” Segovia told Mint Press News.
“People will sleep on floors, in stores, 10-15 people in the same room. There is a routine of calling your relatives back home, letting them know that you made it. What you leave behind is a sense of hope. They are waiting for that support to come home. Maybe that means more food for your family. You are in two places. Your heart is home and also here.”
Like many undocumented immigrants, Segovia spent over a year working “survival jobs”: low-wage employment opportunities that pay cash, outside the purview of the IRS. Typical survival jobs include construction work, cleaning jobs and work in restaurants.
Even mundane tasks that U.S. citizens take for granted become nearly impossible without documentation. Because of federal requirements, doing laundry or opening a bank account prevents major challenges.
“Having newly arrived in the U.S. I didn’t realize how difficult it was to survive without papers. I couldn’t open a bank account, I couldn’t get a car, I couldn’t even pay for my laundry without a debit or credit card. You just feel really helpless, the system is not easy to get documentation and there are very few people who you can actually trust to help you,” one immigrant, who moved from the U.K. to the U.S. 6 months ago, said.
According to the Inter-American Development Bank, immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean send roughly $60 billion to relatives and friends in their home countries each year. This remittance economy provides an important boost to developing economies in the Global South.
Even after establishing a residence, a job and a way of life in the U.S., undocumented immigrants still risk being detained and deported by ICE.
“It is very hard for me and so many people. You are afraid that the police are going to stop you at any time. There is racism when you are driving a car and people stare at you. It is a humiliating thing,” Fernandez said.
During Barack Obama’s first term, 1.5 million undocumented immigrants were deported. This pace continued through 2012, with more than 409,000 deportations through September of last year.
A smaller segment of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants are students studying in U.S. colleges and universities but unable to obtain the necessary documentation to remain in the country after graduation.
As of 2011 there were 764,495 foreign students studying in the U.S., an increase of 6 percent from 2010 driven by the large number of students from China and Saudi Arabia now studying at U.S. institutions of higher learning.
“They are talking about immigration reform, I don’t know how that will affect students like me who are trying to obtain residency. Most of the immigration reform talks about how to make the illegal, legal,” one student from Southeast Asia said in an anonymous statement to Mint Press News.
“I haven’t heard anything that they discuss or comprehensive details about people who come here legally on a student visa who have the same interest to gain residency or citizenship in the future,” he said.
Currently, companies are required to pay fees ranging from $825 to nearly $4,000 to employ an international student after he graduates. The added cost of an H-1B petition has hindered the influx of well-educated international students into the legal U.S. job market.
“In order to stay, you have to find a company to sponsor you. They have quotas. Pretty much, they don’t want to deal with the paperwork for sponsorship because it’s expensive for them. I think its bureaucratic in some way. There are not many options. No flexibility,” the student said.
The U.S. government caps the number of H-1B sponsorships at roughly 65,000 per fiscal year.
For Tim Kamanga, an Malawian environmental studies graduate from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, the rigid visa requirements are making it difficult to find work and remain in the U.S.
“My field isn’t hiring. If they were, they would look at their own citizens first. When you graduate from a four-year college and then go back to a two-year college, you get a little discouraged … I would love to see the American government open up more doors for international students,” Kamanga told Mint Press News.
According to a study by the NAFSA Association of International Educators, only .07 percent of international students holding H-1B visas are represented in the U.S. labor force.
“America is just educating these people and then they go back to their home countries. [The solution] is simple. Educate these people, give them a green card, let them work here and pay taxes. This is something that America could benefit from. Renew their visa. Give them their chance,” Kamanga said.
Making matters more difficult is the ICE requirement that international students find work within three months after graduation, return to school or go home.
“They told me, ‘We are going to give you one year but you need to find a job in three months.’ Look at the economy. If you can’t find a job they will kick you out of the country,” Kamanga said. “It’s almost like they don’t want you here.”
*Some names have been changed or omitted to protect the identities of Mint Press sources.