Published Tuesday, January 30, 2001, in the Miami Herald
Nothing has been done to solve the huge contradictions in the immigration laws.
Everyone, absolutely everyone, benefits from the work of undocumented immigrants in the United States. However, there’s a great deal of hypocrisy in this country about the millions of immigrants who work here without papers. People criticize them but use them, denounce them publicly but exploit them in private, shout that they shouldn’t be here but are unable to function without them.
The topic resurfaces every time there is a political scandal. The most recent one involved Linda Chávez, George W. Bush’s first nominee for Secretary of Labor. As we all know, Chávez’s nomination skidded off the rails when it was learned that she helped — and paid — an undocumented Guatemalan woman in the early ’90s. A similar incident cost Zoe Baird the post of U.S. Attorney General in the Clinton administration.
What’s most frustrating about all this is that after the scandals exploded nothing was done to solve once and for all the huge contradictions in immigration laws. In the United States, it is illegal to hire an undocumented worker. However, the reality is that all 281 million Americans hire these immigrants, directly or indirectly.
Some hire them even though they suspect or know that their documents aren’t in order. Such is the case of gardeners, baby-sitters, factory workers and field workers. Others simply benefit from their work unknowingly. Who in the United States can raise a hand and say that he or she hasn’t benefited from the work of an undocumented worker? Nobody.
Every time we eat fruit or vegetables picked by undocumented laborers, we benefit. Every time we stop at a hotel where some of the employees are undocumented, we benefit. Every time we go to a restaurant whose waiters or cooks are undocumented, we benefit. Every time we buy or rent a house built by undocumented bricklayers, we benefit. Every time we travel down a street or road laid by undocumented workers, we benefit. Every time.
The United States is home to about six million undocumented immigrants — the new census will give us a more accurate count — and thanks to them the nation’s economy is one of the most productive in the world. Immigrants — legal and undocumented — have contributed enormously to America’s economic prosperity. They take the jobs nobody else wants, they’re truly indispensable in the farms and the service industries, they keep inflation low, pay taxes, create new jobs and contribute $10 billion a year to the U.S. economy, according to the Academy of Science.
So, if undocumented workers are so useful and necessary in this country, why are they attacked so? Why aren’t they protected and granted amnesty? Well, to put it plainly, because of racial prejudice, ethnocentrism and ignorance. People aren’t fully aware of the problems of undocumented immigrants. Few know how valuable they are. Conversely, immigrants often are used as scapegoats.
What’s needed is a general amnesty for these six million immigrants, so they’ll stop hiding, so they won’t live as hunted people. What’s needed is an amnesty like the one that normalized the immigration status of three million people in 1986. If the Bush administration wants to be “compassionate” with the homeless, the poor and the unprotected — as Bush said in his campaign for president — it would have to introduce and pass a new amnesty bill.
I admit, however, that that wouldn’t solve the long-range problem. Every year about 300,000 immigrants enter the United States illegally and stay here. That northward flow is unstoppable, so long as jobs here go begging while jobs in Latin America remain scarce. More than a legal problem, undocumented immigration is an economic problem.
Therefore, it would be necessary to work out a migration agreement between the main expellers of migrants in Latin America and the United States. Mexico is the main expeller of people to the north: one of every six Mexicans lives in the United States, that is, 20 million Mexicans.
And the closest thing to a migration agreement is the proposal for a guest-worker program recently discussed between Republican senators Phil Gramm and Pete Domenici and Mexican President Vicente Fox and several members of his Cabinet. Let’s hope that Bush and Fox can nail something down.
The present immigration laws promote hypocrisy, generate violence along the border, encourage abuse, unfairly shift the responsibilities of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to the citizens, fail to stop the northward flow of migration and do not help to determine a definitive, long-range solution. It is urgent that they be modified and modernized for the new millennium.
Jorge Ramos is news anchor for Univision and columnist for El Nuevo Herald, where this column first appeared.