Human Rights

They Keep on Knocking But They Can't Come In

The U.S. badly needs more workers, so why won't the system let them in?
here are many signs that our immigration system is broken, and that more of the same policies won't make it work.

An estimated 11 million undocumented persons live and work in the United States today. Smugglers, traffickers and criminal elements who prey on undocumented migrants are hurting border communities.

Nearly 2,000 migrants have died trying to cross our border from the south in the five years from 1998 through 2003, and nearly 400 migrants continue to die at our borders every year.

Service-sector employers can't get legal workers -- restaurants, nursing homes, construction companies, childcare centers and landscaping firms are among those facing severe and growing worker shortages. Seasonal temporary visas can't meet the demand. The winter vegetable crop is rotting in the fields because fewer than one-half the workers needed for the harvest are currently available.

Family immigration backlogs are extensive. Spouses and children currently wait three to five years to reunite with their lawful permanent resident loved ones, with the waits extending seven to 10 years for Mexicans.

What will it take to fix this broken system? What can meet our nation's labor needs as well as uphold its values in support of family unity?

Not surprisingly, a great percentage of undocumented workers come from Mexico. Economic integration engendered by NAFTA has led to the addition of 500,000 export-manufacturing jobs in Mexico from 1994 to 2002, but in that same period, over 1.3 million workers were displaced from the Mexican agricultural sector. The search for cheaper labor has led many "maquiladoras" on the Mexican side of the border to move overseas, resulting in a further job loss of 30 percent of "maquila" jobs during the 1990s. These factors continue to "push" Mexican workers to the United States in search of work.

On the other hand, the U.S. labor market desperately needs immigrant workers. This need will continue to grow in the coming decades. Already, by 2001, undocumented workers were 58 percent of the agricultural work force; 24 percent of private household service; 17 percent of business services; 9 percent of restaurant workers and 6 percent of construction labor.

The growing availability of jobs in many sectors of the U.S. economy continues to "pull" Mexican and other workers to the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be a growing demand for workers in the coming years as a result of the expansion of the U.S. economy and the aging and retiring of the native-born U.S. work force. Immigrant workers are essential to the nation's economic health.

So, simply throwing more money and resources at the border and an emphasis on enforcement will not lead to an efficient and rational immigration system. Government spending on border enforcement quintupled in the years from 1993 through 2004 -- from $740 million to $3.8 billion. The number of Border Patrol agents increased threefold in the same period, from 3,965 to 10,835. Yet, during this same period, the number of undocumented immigrants in the country more than doubled, from 4.5 million to 9.3 million.

We need a better system. We need comprehensive reform that will make immigration safe, orderly legal and controlled. Such reform must provide three things: 1) an opportunity for people already living and working here to earn permanent legal status; 2) a new temporary worker program with adequate labor protections, so that essential workers can enter the U.S. safely, legally and expeditiously; and 3) reductions in the backlog in family-based immigration so that families can unite in a timely way.

Proposals that lack these three components and seek only to increase enforcement of the current unworkable system will only perpetuate and exacerbate current problems.

The window of opportunity for significant action on immigration is spring 2006. By late spring, attention will turn to the upcoming midterm elections, and the immigration issue will once again be deferred until the new Congress convenes in 2007.

The dangers are many. Congress may enact harsh enforcement measures, such as the recently passed Sensenbrenner bill in the House, that do nothing to increase our nation's security but only raise the pressures on hardworking but undocumented immigrants. These workers will be forced to remain in the shadows. More and more immigrants will resort to dangerous paths of entry to the United States and more and more will die in the process.

Or Congress may engage in honest debate and enact realistic and comprehensive reform that ensures that the United States will remain a nation of laws and of immigrants in the decades to come.

Jeanne Butterfield is executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
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