Cover Story

Here to work

"Here to work" Continued...

Issue: "Coming to America," April 6, 2013

Andrade pays employees between $11 and $12 an hour—more than 50 percent above minimum wage—but still can’t find enough labor. “How does the government expect me to grow the business if I don’t have workers?” she asked. Andrade said those who will work don’t have papers, and those who have papers won’t work—alluding to native-born Americans who often turn down jobs requiring hard physical labor.

That problem isn’t isolated to Texas: Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, told me farmers are desperate for workers, but the ones who will work can’t pass E-Verify—an Internet-based government program for employers to confirm a worker’s status—and the ones who pass E-Verify won’t work. “Farmers don’t want to break the law,” he said. “Give us immigration reform and a guest worker program that works, then bring on E-Verify.” If lawmakers made E-Verify mandatory without dealing with the realities of the economy, Wooten said, farmers would be put out of business: He estimated more than half of North Carolina agriculture workers are undocumented.

Current immigration policy is geared toward family reunification, which accounted for two-thirds—about 688,000—of the 1.06 million immigrants granted legal residence in 2011. Those numbers include many non-immediate family members, a result of policy that should change, according to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Arizona lawyer Clint Bolick in their new book, Immigration Wars. Bush and Bolick present a six-point plan to replace today’s “cumbersome and irrational” immigration laws with an all-new approach that would use, among other things, increased state involvement and a revamped visa system to help achieve border security. “Strong border security does not go hand in hand with suppressing immigration,” Bolick wrote.

Similarly, allowing illegal immigrants to stay and work legally does not necessarily mean granting citizenship. Under the plan Bush and Bolick present in their book, released March 5, adult illegal immigrants would have a path to permanent residency, but without the opportunity to earn citizenship. “It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that actions have consequences,” they wrote.

Bush and Bolick would allow immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children—so-called “DREAMers”— to receive a green card and have a clear path to citizenship once they complete high school without a criminal record, but that didn’t prevent a media firestorm over the idea of granting some people residency without citizenship. Bolick told me the controversy is “frustrating because the book presents a comprehensive plan” that “only works as a whole.”

What do illegal immigrants want? “People just want to work,” Balbina Andrade said. “Ninety percent of the immigrants don’t care about the citizenship.” Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, placed the number even higher: He told me that at a 2011 gathering of 1,000 undocumented immigrants in Phoenix, 99 percent said they would be satisfied with legalization without an option to become citizens (although Rodriguez advocates for a path, with penalties, to citizenship).

History suggests many do not want to become citizens: More than half of the illegal immigrants granted residency in 1986 did not apply for citizenship. One of them is Rafael Gutierrez, who illegally entered the United States from Mexico in 1982 at age 16. Gutierrez, whose wife is still undocumented, has been content to maintain his legal status for the last 27 years while working at a restaurant and raising three children near Houston. He said it’s illegal status—not the lack of citizenship—that causes problems for immigrants, millions of whom drive without a driver’s license and cannot obtain health insurance.

Cynthia Huerta, 19, came at age 7 to the United States with her parents on a travel visa and never left. Huerta’s aunt, an American citizen, petitioned for the family’s permanent residency in 2000, and they’ve been waiting 13 years for an answer. “I can’t get married or else the process will start over,” she said in soft-spoken but flawless English. Huerta, who works part-time at a law office, graduated in the top 10 percent of her high-school class in Houston last year, but she had to opt for a community college instead of Texas A&M University, because undocumented immigrants do not qualify for government financial aid.

Financial aid and other entitlements are a sensitive issue for conservatives, who believe illegal immigrants, if legalized, would overburden an already bloated system. Advocates on both sides have cited studies indicating the 2007 proposed immigration reform law would have added or subtracted from the country’s bottom line, but ultimately it was the issue of a guest worker program that derailed negotiations. Talks fell apart after then-Sen. Barack Obama cast the deciding vote (49-48) on a labor-union-backed amendment that would end a new guest worker program after five years.

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