(43) Illegal immigration: headache of US
The issue of illegal immigration is one of America’s biggest headaches. According to government estimates, there are about 5 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.; however, some reports estimate that the number has already exceeded 8 million. The states near the Mexican border, such as California, Arizona, and Texas, have the most serious illegal immigration problems.
When I was a House representative, supervisors of Los Angeles County (which was part of my district) requested a hearing in the House on the issue, insisting that it was a critical financial issue for the county. According to their report, there were four problems California suffered due to illegal immigration.
First, 25 percent of the prisoners in their jails were illegal immigrants. Second, the cost spent on a prisoner is over $30,000 per year. Third, the cost of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) for the children of illegal immigrants is estimated to be about $500 million annually. Fourth, 25 percent of patients in hospitals run by the county are illegal immigrants.
During the hearing, the county stated that it could not afford the cost caused by illegal immigration. It claimed that the cost should be shared with the federal government, since the immigration law is a federal law and the federal government should be responsible for the problem of illegal immigration.
The next week, a similar hearing was held in New York by their state legislature. The discussion centered on drug-related crimes by illegal immigrants. Finally, the members of Congress from California led an effort to change the immigration law.
After many twists and turns, “S 1348,” an immigration reform bill, came out in 2007. The bill contains 320 pages of very complex legal writing, and it is not clear when it will pass.
On the one hand, the far-right conservatives of the Republican Party claim that all illegal immigrants should be deported to their countries, since they may be potential criminals. On the other, the far-left liberals of the Democratic Party argue for an amnesty which will forgive illegal immigrants and grant them permanent residency. It is never easy to find a compromise between the two sides. Furthermore, some young liberals claim that the Mexican border should be opened and both Americans and Mexicans allowed to cross freely. They are called “open-border extremists,” and their influence cannot be ignored.
The Republican Party has hesitated to initiate any immigration law for concern it would be like poking at a hornet’s nest. Some Republicans thought that leaving the immigration law alone would be wiser, since if things went wrong it might be blamed on the Democrats.
There have been amendments to the immigration law proposed for political purposes. For example, the reform bill has articles such as building fences on the 370-mile-long border, adding 20,000 new border patrol agents, giving Z visas to illegal immigrants and allowing them to be eligible for permanent residency after eight years if they pay a $2,000 fine and return to their countries to apply for green cards. There are also complicated additional conditions, such as the number of Z visas issued should be less than 200,000 annually and the immigrants should be fluent in English.
Since the reform bill was originally proposed by some Republican members of Congress, it contained tougher requirements at first, but they were softened in the process of discussion.
The Democratic Party always welcomes a flexible immigration policy and claims that illegal immigrants should be accepted as long as they have not committed crimes. The intention behind this is to get Mexican-American votes and strengthen the political base by increasing the number of the Hispanic members of Congress. In fact, if a maximum 8 million illegal immigrants receive green cards and become U.S. citizens after five years, most of them will, presumably, support the Democratic Party.
Congressional Republicans have often requested that the Mexican government punish illegal immigrants crossing its border. However, the Mexican government has not helped very much, citing the lack of manpower as a reason. This made Republicans wonder if the Mexican government is really serious about changing the situation.
Most illegal immigrants are part of the working classes, and do not have any special skills or a good education. Many of these people live on government benefits, even in Mexico. Some members began to think that they are the burden of Mexico, and this makes one wonder if the Mexican government indirectly helps their migration to the U.S., thinking that it would be better for Mexico.
Many illegal immigrants are only able to find manual-labor jobs in the U.S. In fact, they often come to nationwide Koreatowns to work in restaurants. According to a report, 29 percent of them work in roofing businesses, 24 percent in agriculture, and 25 percent in construction. They now have become familiar with Koreatowns, and have become an indispensable labor force that does the tough jobs. These days, you can find about 50 of them, grouped in three or four, walking around on the streets of Koreatown in Washington, D.C. They are waiting for someone to hire them. Even the police cannot drive them away as long as they do not commit a crime.
The issue of illegal immigrants in the U.S., who barely make their living on a day-to-day basis, is a troublesome issue that does not seem to be going away.
Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).