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Published: Saturday, 11/5/2005

McCain-Kennedy bill is an earnest step toward immigration reform

BY MARK HELLER
Mark Heller Mark Heller
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THE United States desperately needs to enact immigration reform, not only to increase national security but also to establish a more rational, logical, and humane policy.

We here in Toledo recently saw the inhumanity of the current immigration system when two upstanding immigrants, the Yungs, were deported and forced to leave the country, leaving behind their minor child, who is a U.S. citizen.

The problem with enacting immigration reform is not agreement as to the problem, but its solution. Most informed observers agree that the current system is broken.

This is exhibited by overwhelming evidence - waits for four to 23 years to bring relatives, including spouses, into the United States, and the inability of the Department of Homeland Security to timely renew work authorizations even when applied for 90 days prior to expiration. In addition, there are millions of undocumented persons in the country, many of whom are exploited by unscrupulous employers.

Our current system is unable to prevent or continue their presence in America. Even with a tripling of the border patrol along the southern border there has been no change in the numbers of undocumented persons entering the country.

Finally, many immigrant advocates and employer groups, including Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, advocating for years with Congress about needed reform, have been unable to obtain a vote on legislation because of the radical right.

Letters to The Blade after the deportation of the Yungs assumed at least three false ideas about immigrants to the United States: undocumented people ("illegal aliens") don't pay taxes; undocumented persons who pay others to get them into the country illegally pay the transporter ("coyote") before the undocumented person arrives, and, the incarceration and/or deportation of immigrants such as Mr. and Mrs. Yung is rare.

As a lawyer who has represented immigrants, both documented and undocumented, for more than 25 years, I can tell you that these assumptions are wrong.

Undocumented immigrants do pay income taxes, Social Security, and Medicare taxes. There are millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. working in jobs where the employer is required to make these standard deductions for taxes and other withholdings.

In fact, the Social Security Administration estimates that undocumented immigrants are paying approximately $8.5 billion a year into Social Security and Medicare; due to their immigration status, they are not eligible for either program.

This is also true of payroll taxes. It's estimated that 75 percent of undocumented immigrants pay federal, state, and local income taxes and, while receiving basic public services such as fire and police protection, are not eligible for most government benefits funded by these taxes. These benefits available to U.S. citizens and some lawful immigrants include Social Security, unemployment compensation, food stamps, and college loans and grants.

Most undocumented persons who agree to pay someone to bring them into the country illegally do not pay the fee up front.

Most often they have to "work off" the fee by working for the alien smuggler or his agents; this has led to widespread abuse in the form of wage slavery ("peonage"), brutal treatment, and even sexual assault or exploitation.

Finally, the deportation or removal of persons like the Yungs, a Korean couple with a U.S. citizen son, is commonplace.

Laws passed in the 1996 Congress and waiting times for spouses and children of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents cause the fracture and destruction of many families with children; I have seen this first-hand on many occasions.

My estimate is that the Department of Homeland Security spent more than $10,000 to incarcerate Mrs. Yung, a church and school volunteer, during the six months she was held (Immigration & Customs Enforcement pays local jails about $80 per day to house detained immigrants).

I think everyone realizes that our immigration system is broken, but may not realize it is breaking up families daily while keeping millions of persons underground and exploitable.

A recent study estimated it would cost some $40 billion annually to find, detain, and deport all the undocumented immigrants in the United States. I believe this would be money poorly spent considering the demographic need for workers as the baby boomers start to retire; it would result in a severe worker shortage in low-wage jobs.

Earned legalization under the McCain-Kennedy bill would stop the destruction of families, bring undocumented immigrants out into the daylight where they cannot be abused and exploited, and impose stricter regulation of immigration.

The McCain-Kennedy bill, the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, would: place more emphasis on tighter border control through resources, planning, and cooperation with Mexico and Canada; improve the entry and exit data system; establish an employment eligibility confirmation system; reduce to some degree the waiting times for persons seeking to legally immigrate to the U.S., and, establish an earned legalization program involving payment of penalties by immigrants already in the U.S. without proper authorization.

The act would thus tighten border security through enforcement, make it harder for unauthorized immigrants to work without proper authorization, and ensure that U.S. labor demands can be met.

The bipartisan McCain-Kennedy bill includes co-sponsors from across the political spectrum, including, from left to right, Sens. Ted Kennedy, Ken Salazar, Joseph Lieberman, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Sam Brownback.

This broad spectrum of support is a strong testament to the necessity of a unified solution to a problem that requires more than just angry talk and lack of action. McCain-Kennedy represents one potentially positive approach, and there may be others that could work equally well.

The point is that immigration reform must become a national priority, and it would be shameful for Congress to continue the disgraceful status quo.

Mark Heller is a Toledo attorney with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality's Migrant Farmworker and Immigrant Worker Project.



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