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The following article was published in the Catholic Charities Connections newsletter on Nov. 22, 2008. It was written by Maricella Garcia, the former director of Catholic Charities Immigration Services in Little Rock.
Many people discount immigration reform because they are against an “amnesty,” or because they feel that immigrants should have to follow the rules and stand in line, or even because of fear of changing values. However, many of these distinctions are being made on the basis of myths that have no real basis in reality. In this article, we will explore some common myths to help understand the immigration phenomenon.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, around 75 percent of today’s immigrants have legal permanent residence. Of the remaining 25 percent, 40 percent entered legally with a visa. Most immigrants are not in the U.S. illegally and we have to make sure that we don’t assume “immigrant” means “illegal.” The word immigrant doesn’t mean “illegal.” There are many categories of immigrants — too many to list here, but it is important to note that legal immigration to the U.S. far outpaces “illegal” immigration.
Further, the obsessive focus on only one aspect of immigration creates an impression that we are being overrun by undocumented immigrants. There is no evidence that this is the case. In fact, in the early 20th century the immigrant-born population in the U.S. was about 15 percent, currently it is about 11.5 percent. The undocumented immigrant boom phenomenon simply doesn’t exist.
Immigrants are less likely than natives to use public services according to the Urban Institute. Undocumented immigrants who are working pay into social security while they are unable to access those benefits. Undocumented immigrants also pay federal and state income tax, local and state taxes. According to one study, on the federal level immigrants tax payments total more than $20 to $30 billion more than they use in benefits.
In Arkansas, this resulted in a $20 million dollar budget surplus which has helped to strengthen the state’s reserve fund. In addition, in most states, undocumented immigrants are ineligible for most welfare benefits including food stamps, transitional living assistance, and public housing. In Arkansas undocumented immigrants are ineligible for nearly all welfare benefits and cannot receive medical care generally unless it is the case of a bona fide emergency.
In fact, in many instances, immigrants would have access to better services in their home country. For example, many Central American countries provide completely free medical services including hospital stays to anyone regardless of income, nationality, or status.
In many cases, this argument is made on the supposed basis of increased numbers of undocumented immigrants in federal jails as a ratio to their population as a whole. However, this is misleading because a majority of immigrants in federal prison are awaiting deportation and have committed no crime. In fact, unlawful presence in the United States is a civil violation of federal law, not a criminal violation, so it is not a crime. Being undocumented does not make someone a criminal. Further, by choosing to label people as “illegal” we dehumanize them so that we can then justify any actions taken against them.
In fact, just this month in New York, seven teenagers were arrested after routinely going out targeting Hispanics for beatings and which ended with a long time resident from Ecuador being stabbed to death. In response, Suffolk Executive Steve Levy commenting on the brutal hate crime said, “It’s a one day story.” When we dehumanize others, we not only hurt those we target but we also dehumanize ourselves. We have seen this recently playing out in various states, including Arkansas, where legislation has been attempted or in some cases, passed into law, making it criminally unlawful just to be in the United States without documentation.
These laws often target the undocumented as well as groups that provide many social services. Should it be a crime to feed a hungry family? To provide transportation to the hospital for those who are sick? To give school uniforms to needy children? By choosing to follow this route we run the danger of pushing ourselves into a corner where strict adherence to “the law,” puts us in a position where individual people don’t matter and where there is no allowance for treating people with dignity and respect regardless of their status.
This myth has several layers that we need to explore to fully understand. First, there is no program that allows you to go from undocumented to citizen. You can’t just become a citizen, you have to immigrate first as a resident and then in most cases you must wait an additional five years after you receive your “Green Card” to apply for citizenship.
There is no magic wand that turns you into a citizen. In fact, to be eligible for citizenship you must prove that you deserve it by virtue of activities like working, paying taxes, and showing that you are a person of good moral character. In addition, you can’t have any type of criminal behavior that could affect your application. This not only applies to major serious crimes, but could also mean minor infractions like traffic tickets.
Residents applying for citizenship are under strict scrutiny and many times must live their lives to a higher standard than others, because anything they do, not matter if they paid the fine, served the time, or were given community service can count against them in their immigration status. But, the larger issue underlying this myth is the idea that most immigrants could somehow adjust their status, but they refuse to do so. This is not true.
Of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants, most actually have no ability to adjust to a legal status in this country. Stricter regulations implemented in 1996 mean that an immigrant unlawfully present in the United States for more than 180 days who then leaves the country is barred from re-entry for either 3 or 10 years, depending on the length of the unlawful stay.
Further, if they have been unlawfully present and have multiple entries into the U.S. they can be subject to a permanent bar. Since, there is no current process that allows them to adjust here in the United States; most undocumented immigrants are subject to one or more of the bars making attaining legal status virtually impossible when you add a bar to long wait times for most family-based visa categories.
For example, suppose a U.S. citizen sister is applying for her brother who has been unlawfully present in the U.S. for two years and his visa is current (or available). They have been waiting since filing in 1997 (11 years) if they are from any country except China, India, the Philippines, or Mexico. If they are from Mexico, they have been waiting since 1995 (13 years) or the Philippines they have been waiting since 1986 (22 years)!
Once the brother leaves the U.S. he incurs the 10 year bar, causing the consulate to reject his application. He must remain out of the U.S. for 10 and have proof that he did so before he is eligible to return. However, his first visa is no longer valid and he will have to start the process all over again, filling out the forms, paying the fees, waiting for a visa.
America should not be about “us” and “them.” We are not defined by one culture or race. With the exception of Native Americans, all Americans are descendents of immigrants in one form or another. Therefore, we should understand the importance of allowing people the opportunity to make better lives for themselves and their families. American culture, whatever it is, is not tied to one group. Instead of worrying that somehow America will be diminished by the influx of immigrants, we should celebrate the diversity that makes our country great.
Changing our perspective on such a difficult issue as immigration can be hard. But, the next time that you generalize about immigrants, I would ask you to question what underlies your feelings. Are you scared by talk of “waves of illegal immigrants,” are you worried about immigrant’s refusing to assimilate, or are you worried about changing cultural values?
If so, I would encourage you to get the facts on immigration. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has created an organization called Justice for Immigrants which provides facts about immigration. You can get more information at www.justiceforimmigrants.org. In addition for specific immigration facts about Arkansas, you can see the Winthrop Rockefeller foundation’s Report, “A Profile of Immigrants in Arkansas,” which can be found on their Web site at www.wrfoundation.org.
At Catholic Charities Immigration Services, I can safely say that these myths are not reality. We work to reunite families, help regularize the status of people who have waited patiently (sometimes for decades), and most importantly offer new immigrants the opportunity to become a part of the American dream.