After immigrating to the U.S. nearly 20 years ago from Peru, Fanny Villareal identifies with the struggles of today’s immigrants.
“The majority came to work really hard and to do better for their family,” said Villareal, who is now the chief financial officer of The Hispanic Coalition and founder of the Syracuse bilingual radio station, Nosotros Radio. And she is among those who call for changes in U.S. immigration policy to allow some immigrants here without government permission to seek citizenship or amnesty.
“There are a lot of people who came illegally,” said Villareal, “but for a good reason. So I think everybody should be taken case by case.”
Advocates for a more open immigration policy say even undocumented immigrants contribute to the economy and the country. “The economy would tank if we deported every single person that was undocumented,” said Barrie Gewanter, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Central New York chapter. “Our economy relies on people to do jobs on farms and in factories that American citizens just don’t want to do.”
But opponents maintain that undocumented immigrants are lawbreakers and a drain on the country’s financial resources.
Roy Beck, founder of NumbersUSA, says his organization calls itself an “immigration-reduction organization” but it does not advocate mass roundups and deportations. He says the main causes of illegal immigration are job opportunities in the United States that are not available in immigrants’ home countries. His group calls for making it harder for illegal immigrants to get jobs in the U.S. and harder for them to get access to government benefits.
“If the 45 million foreign citizens who legally visit our country each year see that they can’t get a job and can’t access taxpayer-provided benefits, few of them will consider violating their visas and becoming illegal aliens,” he said. “The longer we refuse to remove the incentives, the deeper and more complicated roots that illegal aliens sink into our country.”
In Beck’s view, too much immigration contributes toward a weaker middle-class and the jobs taken by undocumented immigrants could be done by unemployed Americans.
As of 2011, nearly 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants lived in the U.S., according to estimates by the federal Department of Homeland Security. In New York, the estimate was 460,000 unauthorized immigrants. By 2050, historians and scientists predict that the majority of the population will be made up of minority ethnic groups.
Among the proposed changes to immigration policy:
- DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act & the Path to Citizenship
The idea of immigration amnesty has strong support from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way. Under amnesty laws, undocumented people who are in good standing with the law can present themselves to the government and apply for citizenship. Those people would not be deported immediately.
The DREAM Act was introduced by Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., in 2001. Under the proposed legislation, young undocumented immigrants would be eligible for a six-year “path to citizenship.” Among the requirements to be eligible, applicants must have entered U.S. before the age of 16; must have lived in the U.S. for at least five consecutive years; and must have graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED.
After passing in the House in 2010, it failed to receive enough votes to end debate in the Senate. The 2013 DREAM Act is expected to be re-introduced to Congress in January 2013.
Monica Arias Miranda, president and CEO of the Hispanic Coalition of New York, argues that young immigrants brought here as children need special consideration. “These kids don’t want to go anywhere. This is their country. This is the only country they have known,” she said. “They want to get jobs; they want to go to college. But they can’t. So where are they going to end up?”
- Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals
In June 2012, President Obama deferred deportation for some immigrants who came here as children. The deferment period is two years and it is renewable. Supporters of the DREAM Act applaud this policy as a way for immigrants to stay in the country while they work on getting the DREAM Act passed into law.
- New York state’s DREAM Fund Bill
The New York DREAM fund bill is a state measure that would allow undocumented students to apply for state-funded financial aid for college. The measure has strong support from Hispanic, black and Asian legislators and passed in the state Assembly, under a Democratic majority. But in June, it failed to pass in the state Senate, then with a Republican majority. The bill will come back to the table when the state legislature is back in session in January 2013.
- STEM Jobs Act
The STEM Jobs Act is a Republican proposal that would have provided green cards to 55,000 graduates of American universities specializing in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. It called for allowing the spouses and children under age 18 of people with permanent residence to come to the U.S. after waiting a year for their own green cards to be granted. But it also eliminated a lottery program, called the “diversity visa program,” that would have allowed in more immigrants from countries that don’t usually have much immigration to the United States.
On Nov. 30, the bill passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives but was blocked in the Democratic-controlled Senate in early December. Democrats, led by Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, objected to the loss of the diversity visa program.
Crystal Williams, the executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, supported the measure. “We need to be able to keep some of the people we are educating,” said Williams. “Without viable visa options in the U.S., they return to their home countries or go to countries with friendlier immigration systems.”
(Macy Jenkins is a graduate student in broadcast and digital journalism.)