Monday, July 27, 2009

Through the Gate or Over the Fence? Ripon's Undocumented Immigrants

Through the gate or over the fence?
Ripon’s Undocumented Immigrants

Raimundo , a middle-aged Mexican man, entered the U.S. legally back in the late 90s after a year-long wait for a tourist visa. He didn’t even try to obtain a work visa, given the likely wait of a decade or more, and the probability of finding a job without one. He found his way to a home and a job in the Ripon area, enjoyed the quiet lifestyle, and a year later brought his wife and daughter to join him.

For the first few years, they traveled back and forth to Mexico periodically, sometimes together, sometimes separately. A seasonal lay-off might send one of them back to Mexico where they would visit relatives and live on savings, and a cash shortage would bring them north again.

Their casual migrations ended in the post 9/11 political climate, with its heightened border security and increased workplace enforcement of immigration laws. Now Raimundo and his family stay here year-round.

Raimundo’s story is a common one. Some evidence suggests that tighter border security actually may be keeping more undocumented workers in the country than out. One study found that 47% of undocumented Mexican immigrants returned to Mexico either temporarily or permanently between 1979 and 1984. Between 1997 and 2003, the number fell to 27%, and it is thought to have fallen substantially since then. What used to be a round trip for many workers has become a one-way migration.

When Enrique decided to come to the U.S., he tried to play by the rules. He applied from his Central American home country for a visa, and entered the U.S. legally several times to visit a brother who had naturalized. He was granted a couple of visa extensions with no difficulty.

After some months in the U.S. he decided to apply for a student visa, and was approved by the university. However, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (CIS) kept his papers for so long that the start date of the program in which he intended to enroll passed. The next month, he got a letter from the agency saying that they were denying his request because it was too late for him to start the program. In addition to denying his student visa, they revoked his tourist visa, making him immediately illegal and subject to deportation.

Enrique then faced two options. One was to return to his country of origin (where no surviving close relatives lived) and reapply, showing proof of employment security there and ownership of sufficient property. But because he had been in the U.S. under an expired visa (unintentionally), he would not be allowed back into the country legally for ten years, if then. Given the burdensome visa requirements, the ten year wait for another try, and the fact that most reapplications are denied, Enrique chose the second option: to go underground and remain in the country illegally. He has never relied on any government or private charity, and he has never broken any law but our immigration law – and that only because CIS kept his papers past the expiration date of his legally obtained visa.

Many like Raimundo and Enrique who have chosen to enter or remain in the country illegally have done so on the calculation that deportation is considerably less likely than failure to obtain legal entry if that is attempted. (See sidebars “Why Don’t They Just Get a Visa?” and “Till Death or La Migra Do Us Part” for more on immigration policy) However, the percentage of illegal border crossers who are apprehended or who die in the attempt is increasing, and Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement (ICE) has been conducting raids across the country to round up and deport undocumented workers (see sidebar “The ICE Man Cometh” for more on the raids.)

As an additional enforcement mechanism, earlier this year Wisconsin joined a number of other states in making licenses unobtainable without proof of legal residency. Supporters of this new law point out that it is hypocritical to give legal ID to those who are here illegally, and suggest that all our laws should work in concert – against illegal immigration. Opponents of the law doubt whether the lack of a license will make many illegal immigrants go home or stop driving – it may only make them less likely to be insured and more dangerous on the road since they won’t have passed a test to be behind the wheel.

How have the prospect of ICE raids, greater workplace enforcement of immigration laws and the withdrawal of legal driving privileges affected Ripon?

No employers contacted for this article think – or are willing to acknowledge -- that they have any illegal workers. No undocumented workers known to this author have lost their jobs so far, but they report that it is much more difficult to obtain employment now than it was a few years ago, and some recent arrivals commute long distances to work.

The one Ripon area employer willing to speak emphasized how hard it would be to fill his labor needs without immigrants. “Without immigrants it’d be pretty hard to keep our doors open.”

He finds immigrants willing to work longer hours and weekends, and to do heavy manual labor that most Americans shun. “If we manage to close the border, people in this country are in for a big surprise. Who do they think is going to do the heavy work? When you hire immigrants, they ask how much work they can do. When you hire Americans, they want to know how little. American kids, they’re terrible. They learn how to work with computers in school, and they all think they should get to work with computers. Nobody thinks they should have to work with their hands any more.”

This employer was also frustrated at how politicized and divorced from reality the national conversation about immigration has become. “I think this whole thing is just politics – politicians are using it to make a splash on TV. Down deep, both parties know we can’t close that border tight – we’d be in big trouble if we did. Immigrants are the only people that are going to do a lot of this work.”

Illegal immigrants worry about raids coming to Ripon: that their children will come home from school one day to discover that the parents have been taken to an unknown detention center out of state to be deported. “If they take me, I just want them to take me with my daughters,” says one anguished father. “The worst would be if they sent me without my daughters.”

Many immigrants fear being caught driving without a license. Chris Stieber of Ripon’s Police Department wonders whether he will see an uptick in unlicensed driving as licenses expire and cannot be renewed. He favors laws being consistent and is uncomfortable with giving a legal nod to illegal immigration. On the other hand, he says, “If not having a license doesn’t make them go home, and it doesn’t keep them off the road, I guess I’d rather see them get a license. If they’re going to be driving anyway, I’d rather know they passed a test, can read road signs, and know what the laws are.” He also wonders if the courts might get bogged down in processing traffic offenses and have fewer resources to devote to more serious crime. “I’ve never known anyone to be deported for a traffic offense, even if they were illegal – so I don’t know how this is going to play out.”

One immigrant mother wonders about her son’s future: “When he can’t renew his license next year, how can he continue his education?” Until recently, she harbored hopes that her son would, though more education, have better opportunities than she has. Now she is not so sure, given that the family’s income is earned in Ripon, the educational opportunities are in Fond du Lac, they cannot afford to maintain separate households – and soon they won’t be able to drive legally.

Sue Jaeke, local administrator for the Salvation Army at St. Catherine of Sienna Catholic Church, has an inside perspective on local families in crisis, some of whom are immigrants. “Until this summer, lots of migrant workers needed a little help to get started – money for a security deposit, for example -- and then they would get a job and they’d be fine, and we wouldn’t see them again. Now it’s different. This last summer, people who’d been coming for years couldn’t get jobs, and there were all these families depending on each other, living together – and none of them had work.”

She sees that the combination of employers afraid to hire undocumented workers, the breakup of families due to immigration problems (often resulting in single mothers with children remaining here), higher gas prices, general economic conditions and excessive indebtedness have pushed some local immigrant families into crisis.

“It breaks my heart,” she says. “These people just want to follow the American dream, and they are willing to work so hard for it without complaining. They don’t take advantage of the system [charity] like a lot of Americans I see. We wouldn’t see them in here if we let them work.”

Paradoxically, those who work most closely with undocumented immigrants suggest that our efforts to crack down on illegal immigration are ending up increasing, not decreasing, the number of immigrants relying on local charity. Every measure that makes their life harder without making them go home drives a few more into the arms of the Thrift Store or the Salvation Army. The cumulative impact of the various enforcement measures does send some immigrants home. Many, however, face such bleak prospects where they came from that they try to tough it out.
Jaeke expects to see more and more of them coming through Saint Catherine’s doors during the coming months. “I’m just worried we’re going to start seeing people living in their cars by spring,” she says.

One undocumented immigrant sums up why he stays despite all the hardships. “When we came here,” he says, “we sold everything we had to pay for the trip. If they deport us, we’ll arrive in Mexico with nothing at all, worse than when we left. And it’s bad, bad in the villages. No work, nothing. Where would we go?”

Jill Stiemsma, a sociology instructor at Moraine Park Technical College and a local expert on the forces driving illegal immigration, suggests that Americans need to align immigration policy with economic reality—both in the U.S. and in the immigrants’ countries of origin. “NAFTA is driving all these small farmers off their ancestral lands in Mexico so multinational corporations can produce ethanol for U.S. cars. We’re driving up the market price of corn at the same time subsistence farmers are losing land to grow their own. They’re having riots about the price of tortillas in Mexico, and we wonder why they’re coming here. They’re coming because they need the work -- and let’s face it, we need the workers. Until we get real about that, we’re fighting a losing battle trying to close the border.”

Sidebar: Why Don’t They Just Get a Visa?

Since 1965, U.S. immigration policy has focused on family reunification and meeting certain identified national economic needs. Each year, a certain number of visas are apportioned to specific categories of jobs, most go to those requiring high skill levels. However, the total number of work visas made available is very small compared with the number of individuals who want to come, and the number that are able to find work if they do come, legally or not.

Most of those who are here illegally, especially those aiming for lower-skill jobs, face no prospect of obtaining a legal work visa without a 10-25 year wait. The US currently issues only 5000 visas for year-round unskilled workers per year, while the economy generates 400,000-500,000 such jobs each year, and native-born population growth does not keep up with this demand. Given the lack of economic opportunities where they live, and their often extensive cross-border networks of relatives with up-to-the-minute information on local job opportunities, many choose to take their chances as undocumented workers.

Sidebar: Till Death or "La Migra" Do Us Part

Would-be immigrants who seek legal entry via family reunification visas face daunting waits. In 1995, about 650,000 individuals were given residency as family members of citizens or residents. Considering that 12% of the U.S. population of 300 million is foreign-born, this means that for roughly every 55 immigrants in the US, one individual was given a family reunification visa.

The system is so backlogged that at the rate CIS is processing applications and the rate it is receiving them, it could take as long as 20 years for the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents to join their family members in the U.S. For Mexicans the wait is even longer. Furthermore, if a child reaches adulthood while waiting for a minor’s visa, she has to start all over again in an even more backlogged visa category. For siblings of citizens, like Enrique, the wait is currently 16-30 years.

A significant percentage of the estimated 11-12 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. are spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents who have been approved for visas but who must wait many years to receive them due to the limited number that may be granted each year. Under current law, if they reside illegally in the U.S., they forfeit their ability to obtain legal visas.

The frequency of family break-ups due to immigration problems has yielded grim humor in the Hispanic community: they joke that the new wedding vow is “Till death or “La Migra” [immigration enforcement] do us part.”

Sidebar: The ICE Man Cometh

During this last year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) drew up plans to enlist employers in immigration enforcement by informing them of employees with apparently incorrect Social Security numbers and requiring that they take action or face legal proceedings.

Implementation of the rule was soon halted by a federal judge. Expert witnesses testified that about two-thirds of the discrepancies would involve U.S. citizens, and that the ruling would shift the effort and expense of immigration enforcement to employers who were ill equipped to handle the burden. Currently, DHS is drawing up new rules that the agency believes will withstand a legal challenge.

In the meantime, raids by Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement (ICE) continue apace, typically targeting employers known to have a high percentage of undocumented workers. Workers are arrested and taken to detention centers where they are processed for deportation or immigration hearings. Their children, roughly two-thirds of whom are U.S. citizens, are left, for somewhere between hours and many months, in the care of their extended families, babysitters, neighbors, churches, local charities, schools and others. Some parents are released to care for their children while awaiting the disposition of their cases, others are not. Some are unable to communicate with their families before deportation; the first their children hear from them may be a call from the Mexican border.

A study by the Urban Institute on the impacts of the raids found that children often experienced severe trauma and prolonged insecurity, and their communities – including economically vulnerable extended families, schools and teachers, and various charitable support networks -- were exhausted by the burden of caring for these young citizens and their disrupted families.

In 2006, as part of “Operation Return to Sender,” ICE arrested 20,000 undocumented workers in workplace raids, and deported a total of 185,000 individuals. This represents less than 2% of all undocumented individuals in the country. ICE’s budget for FY 2007 was $4.7 billion.

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