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The League of Women Voters of Port Washington-Manhasset (LWV) recently held a panel discussion in continuation of its ongoing study of immigration, with the objective of reaching a consensus on the issue. The meeting was part of a two-year immigration study launched by the national LWV aimed at helping communities understand the implications of immigration at the local, state, and federal level. As part of this study, last November the local LWV held a public meeting at the Port Washington library featuring Professor Michael Romano, a specialist in immigration.

The local study committee, chaired by Anne Stovkis, presented the results of their extensive research into the subject as a background for the consensus-deriving process. Other members of the committee who made presentations included Ann Marie Benzinger, Marie Bellon, Sue Fitzgerald, Phoebe Goodman, Rita Tanski, and Jane Thomas (local LWV President). Also on the committee are Barth Healey, Kathy McIntyre and Nigi Riffat (recorder). The committee made available many informative handouts.

Stovkis set a context for the discussion by giving a summary of immigration: "who comes from where." She said that of the approximately 37 million persons in this country who were born elsewhere, about 11.5 million are naturalized citizens; around 11.8 million are permanent residents, and about 11 million unauthorized. She added that approximately one-third of the total immigrant population has come without a valid passport, which she said is "an all-time high." One thing that has changed in recent years is that immigrants are more diverse, with a higher portion coming from the Caribbean, Latin America and Southeast Asia. In addition, many more immigrants are settling in the Midwest, as opposed to the east and west coasts, and many are settling in small towns and second-tier cities. As well, the average educational level of immigrants is higher than before. What has not changed, she said, are the main reasons for immigration: political and economic upheaval in the home countries.

Stovkis pointed out U.S. policies and practices that have "inadvertently encouraged illegal immigration." Two of these were the change in the law in 1965 that prohibited immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America from moving freely across the border as they had in the past, and the replacement of the "quota" system with the "family" system. "I am sure it was well intentioned," she commented. Other factors are the sharp increase in fees and the huge backlog of immigration requests. Stovkis also addressed the "multiculturalism vs. assimilation theme" that Professor Romano had discussed in his presentation. She said, "The expectation is that people should come, learn to speak English, and become part of the mainstream population. For the most part, the research shows that does happen just as it did 50 years ago."

With respect to jobs, Stovkis said that between 2002 and 2012 there will be 66 million jobs created, and there will be no increase in the 20 to 64-year-old age group. She asked rhetorically, "Who will replace the retirees?" Stovkis said that 94 percent of immigrants are employed, adding that a large number of degrees are going to the foreign born, especially in science and engineering. She also pointed out that two-thirds of the newly created jobs in this country come from the small business sector, and that immigrants are more likely to start their own businesses than the American-born. [Editor's Note: Just look up and down Main Street.] Responding to the question of whether immigration has a depressing effect on wages, she said that different studies in different places have had different results. She said that it is possible that among some African-American and low-skilled workers there has been some depression of wages due to immigrant workers, but, in general, she said, "They [immigrants] have contributed a lot to the economy." She reminded the group that immigrants do pay taxes, but those taxes for the most part go to the federal government, whereas any service costs are likely to be borne by the state and local governments.

Ann Marie Benzinger provided a brief history of the legislation. "Generally speaking," she said, the requirements reflected the concerns of the time." In 1790, for example, the requirements were based on race and country of origin. In response to the large influx of Chinese in the 1840s and '50s, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed, and in 1885 the U.S. banned contract labor. She said, "You'll notice a pattern. We really didn't like the Asians." In 1944 the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. The Quota Act of 1924 set quotas for immigration permits based on country of origin; the formula derived from the proportion of those already here. That had the net effect of encouraging immigration from Northern Europe and discouraging it from Southern Europe. Benzinger commented wryly, "We also hated the Southern Europeans." In 1965, she said, we removed most of the quotas. In 1990, we modified the legislation to encourage re-uniting of families. She mentioned that the immigration issue is included in all political party platforms, commenting, "The GOP is less welcoming than the Democrats."

Rita Tanski elaborated on the 1965 National Immigration Reform Act, whose "motto" was "to embrace and uphold our tradition as a nation of immigrants." Tanski explained that the law grants rights according to how the person wishing to enter this country is related to the one who applies for the visa on his or her behalf. The wait for immediate family, she said, is typically a few months to two years, but adult children can wait up to 20 years. She said, "This is causing frustration that leads to illegal immigration. People turn to illegal immigration in desperation to have their families here." She added that the wait times, all of them long, vary depending upon whether the person in this country is a Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) or a U.S. citizen and on the country of origin; for example, she said, "You could wait 22 years for a brother or sister from the Philippines." She added that employers can also sponsor applications for workers, and they go into the same pool as "family preferences."

Tanski pointed out, "Re-unification of families adds to family stability--emotional, cultural and social--as well as increasing family resources." She said that Congress is considering reform to expedite re-unification, but added in the interim a lot of the problem could be solved by increasing the resources of the immigration agency. Tanski also proposed reducing the amount of money required to make up a sponsorship, currently at 125 percent of the poverty level.

Sue Fitzgerald explicated the labyrinth of federal agencies and bureaus that implement immigration requirements. In the wake of the events of 9/11, the INS was killed and its functions folded into five different entities under the auspices of Homeland Security. Tanski went on to say that we have no way of tracking the persons who have overstayed their visas. "We don't really know who is here and who is not," she said. Tanski added, "Immigration is the stepchild of the agencies. They are very underfunded." She contrasted this with Canada and New Zealand, who have cabinet-level positions to handle immigration. Further, with regard to enforcing the mandate that employers check the immigration status of their workers, she said that this involves three entities within and three entities outside of Homeland Security. "The result is that they don't check." Tanski called for a cohesive immigration policy and better data collection.

Jane Thomas elaborated on how difficult enforcement is. She pointed out, for example, that only 10 percent of the enforcement funds go to check employment status; 60 percent go to border enforcement. She commented, "It's difficult to get in, but once you're here there is a job waiting." She added that the fines on employers who are caught hiring undocumented workers are not very high. Border control, on the other hand, has grown more than 500 percent. She said, "The wall is going up." Thomas said that the costs of border control are enormous. She also pointed out that there is a need for better training of border guards and for human rights protection. She said, "Over 2,000 people have died since 1994." She also asked rhetorically, "Mexicans are turned back, but what do you do about the people from the other countries?"

Thomas reiterated that there is no tracking or enforcement of visa overstays, but said that there has been some progress in tracking visas against a list of known and suspected terrorists, stating that roughly 40 percent of undocumented workers come in legally, and then stay on illegally. She recommended that enforcement remain at the federal level and that the role of state and local police should be limited to holding aliens who have been detained for other reasons, and not get involved in immigration.

Thomas pointed out that the list of crimes for which immigrants can be deported has been expanded, and includes such things as shoplifting. Further, authorities are allowed to deport someone whose case is being appealed. A lawyer is permitted in deportation cases, but an attorney is not supplied, as he/she is provided in criminal cases to indigent defendants. Thomas said that there is a large backlog of cases, and suggested that moving immigration cases to regular courts might improve the quality of the judges. In summary, she said, "It's a mess and it needs fixing."

Marie Bellon said that many of the recent immigrant workers are engineers and scientists. She said, "They want a guarantee that their families can come in. They go to three or four different agencies and get different information and misinformation."

Bellon went on to talk about persons who come in seeking asylum under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 and subsequent legislation. She pointed out some of the anomalies of our laws; for example, special legislation permitted Cubans to stay once they managed to get here (but not if they were intercepted in a boat), but Haitians were not so permitted. She described the process o seeking asylum, which begins with a background check and then goes to an immigration judge, and can be sought either affirmatively or defensively. She added that refugees do not fall under the caps. Bellon estimated that, according to the State Department, there are more than two million refugees settled in this country, and, like other recent immigrants are settling outside the major cities and outside the East coast.

Subsequent to the panel's presentation, the group engaged in a consensus-deriving process, which was closed to the press. Stovkis said, "We are now awaiting a consensus statement from the League of Women Voters of the United States in late March or early April. We will publicize the position at that time, and any action will be taken after the consensus has been released. In the meantime, the committee is continuing to inform ourselves of any developments in immigration."


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