The Death of an Immigration Bill

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, July 11, 2007.

Dead again.

That’s the status of Senate bill 1639, the 1,000-page rat’s nest that tackled the nightmare called immigration reform. Like Lazarus, this bill was resurrected, only to have a stake driven through its heart.

During debates about the bill, I found myself in a strange camp – with conservative Republicans, who fought it because it would give amnesty to undocumented immigrants if they jump through some hoops and pay some fines and fees. (Much of immigration is about money. He who pays, plays.)

When I lived in Laredo, Texas, in 1988, a student of mine led a group across the border to tour a maquilladora – a manufacturing plant American companies established in Mexico. This one was for Ford Motor, and this student’s father had relocated from Detroit to manage it. The most startling characteristic about this plant was not the 15-year-olds working there or the low wages but the surrounding neighborhood, a collection of houses the employees constructed of plywood from shipping crates sent to the factory. I understood instantly why people risk their lives to cross a border. It’s not hard to feel sympathy for people who just want a better life.

It is hard, though, for me to be sympathetic toward those who break laws, especially when legal immigrants work so hard to enter this country. I could only stand by, hands tied, while my spouse jumped 10 years of hurdles to earn a green card to work in a field that desperately needs his talent. And I can only commiserate with the man at the bus stop who, after 14 years here legally, has still not received his card.

According to an article in a recent issue of Newsweek, “Every year we take in more immigrants than the rest of the world put together.” We already have 43 different visas on the books – 44 if you include the diversity visa, which is given lottery-style each year to 55,000 people eligible to emigrate from countries that have been historically under-represented.

Forget the morality of the issue. Consider the logistics. The proposed Z and guest worker visas, which require short stays and several returns to the home country, couldn’t possibly succeed. Our government recently had to postpone its mandate for American travelers to Mexico and Canada to carry passports because it couldn’t meet the demand of its own ruling. Imagine the paperwork involved in tracking the guesstimated 12 million illegal residents already here, not to mention new migrants seeking these visas.

Now that S-1639 is dead, maybe we can get to the real work of reforming immigration.

First, we could enforce the Immigration and Control Act of 1986, passed when there were only 2.7 million undocumented immigrants. Enforcing that law might uncover more companies like two in Texas, which supplied fake documents for aliens working at an oil-rig manufacturer that received a $73 million federal contract.

Second, we could work with Mexico to undo the damage of NAFTA, restore its economy, fight the flood of immigrants on their southern border, and reign in the drug lords. If you keep citizens happy – and safe – at home, they’ll likely stay there. Then the border-crossing theme park that opened in the state of Hidalgo could truly be for amusement rather than reinforcing a legacy.

Third, we could ensure that the expensive surveillance equipment already placed at the border by companies like Boeing actually works.

And most importantly, we could reduce the hurdles imposed on those trying to migrate here legally.

The US is indeed a nation of immigrants. Here’s to all of us immigrants who obeyed the laws to find our better life.

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One Country, Two Men

Every morning I wake up with immigrants.  One in my bed.  One at the bus stop.

The one in my bed is the lucky one.  Lucky to have me, perhaps, but more so because he came here from Japan, a country Americans respect. Like most other immigrants, he came looking for personal freedom and opportunity. He is the epitome of the diligent and hard-working Asian. Highly educated. Highly skilled. Productive and industrious, in a field where his skills are in demand. Just the sort of person we want to come here.

And yet, his journey was not easy.  Because he’s in medicine, he was subject to restrictions that other immigrants are not. He was fully trained and licensed in Japan,  but because the U.S. doesn’t recognize medical training from other countries (except Canada), he had to repeat 7 years of training here and return to Japan for 2 more years before he was eligible for a green card, regardless of his marriage to me, an American citizen. It was a grueling odyssey during which he nearly collapsed, but now he’s living the American dream. Home and children. Good job. A martini before dinner.

The man at the bus stop is not so lucky. He came from Mexico – legally — 14 years ago, after his butcher shop failed when NAFTA destroyed the surrounding farms and ranches. At first it was picking tomatoes in California, then a series of manual jobs till he landed at the farm across the road, where he tends horses and, with his wife, is raising two daughters. He also works a second job at a restaurant across town. In the meantime, he studies for his GED.

José and his family live in a disintegrating rental trailer on the horse farm, but the owner is selling the farm and has told him to find somewhere else to live and work. He managed to save up money for a down payment on a house. But the horse farm owner, an elderly and increasingly ornery man, wouldn’t vouch for him with the mortgage company, and so he lost the house, and his $3,000 down payment.

As the work at the horse farm dwindled,  José worked maintenance at a nearby casino and considered getting another job 20 miles away. He has finally found a new job in town. Before he began, however,  he had to have an emergency appendectomy, with no insurance, and his visa expired when the regional immigration office got bogged down in a backlog of applications. No one has been able to sponsor him for a green card.

José, a man of pride, is also smart, hard-working and diligent. He too is just the sort of person we want here. But there is no happy ending for him. He now works nights cleaning floors at a health club. No house. No martini.

If I could save him from this string of calamities, I would. But I have no avenue to help other than to commiserate with him as we wait for our children’s school bus. So I look for ways to help that he can’t trace back to me. Anonymously paying off the rental bill for his daughter’s flute at the music store where my children take lessons. Leaving a tip at the health club at Christmas time, a small number of bills tucked into an unsigned greeting card.  It’s my apology for how my country has treated him.