Each day, while business people work in offices and students study, produce is picked and packaged only miles away, dry wall is placed in homes, and hotel rooms are cleaned. As many people would assume, the majority of these jobs are done by immigrants from Central America and Mexico, and a portion of these workers have immigrated here without papers. Many, brought here as children, now regard the United States as their home and have few memories of their country of origin. Without them, our economy would suffer, since few American citizens are willing to do the same work. So why then, do some people feel undocumented residents should be deported, even if they, like many citizens, have spent their whole lives here? This three-part feature explores undocumented immigration and its effects on immigrants, employers, and organizations.
Part I: Oregon’s Economic Dependency on Latino Labor
Since before Oregon’s founding, Latino people have contributed to our state’s economy and have been a part of our community. As Oregon has grown, so has our dependence on Latino workers. According to a report by the immigrant rights group CAUSA, Oregon’s Latino community makes up around 12% of our total population and provides a backbone for many of our state’s main business sectors, including agriculture, construction and hospitality.
Much of our state’s growth is linked to these Latino people, who whether legal, illegal, working or not, contribute to our society through their culture and taxes. A study by the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis found that between 2000 and 2010, 43% of Oregon’s population growth could be attributed to the Latino population. While the majority of these immigrants are legal, there are up to 220,000 Latinos here without papers, many of whom have been here for the majority of their lives and consider themselves citizens.
Many people worry about Oregon’s high rates of undocumented immigration and its effects on our economy. During an interview, Jim Ludwick, the founder of the anti-immigration organization Oregonians for Immigration Reform, voiced concern about undocumented workers taking jobs from unemployed American citizens and the burden undocumented people place on our economy.
However, undocumented immigrants are some of Oregon’s most important workers as they prop up much of our economy, pay taxes, and spend much of their money here. The Oregon Center for Public Policy found that in total, these immigrants contribute around 230 million dollars per year to Oregon. Additional revenue is generated through taxes paid by employers in their names.
Furthermore, the programs they pay money into will never help them directly as they are prohibited from accessing them. These programs include Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, temporary cash assistance, Social Security, and unemployment benefits. The money they pay into these programs helps raise the quality of life of American citizens.
Very few undocumented immigrants work in high paid positions. As one young undocumented immigrant stated, “When you go to a household where the majority of the people are undocumented, they’re not going to be working in nice offices; they’re usually working in greenhouses, construction, restaurants and other types of heavy, physical labor.” The majority of this labor is low paying, and few if any American citizens will take these jobs. In places with stringent anti-immigration laws like Arizona and Alabama, this phenomenon has proven to be the case. Even in states such as Washington, where immigration laws are less stringent, there has been evidence of employers struggling to adequately find laborers in the absence of migrant workers.
In a recent report aired on NPR in October, a Washington farmer stated that many apples were rotting on the trees due to the lack of available immigrant labor and the unwillingness of American citizens to do the highly physical work. The same situation happened in Alabama, where, according to a report by the Center for American Progress, one tomato farmer reported having only five of his 25 field workers show up to pick tomatoes the day after the Alabama legislature passed the strongest anti-immigration law in the US. After airing ads for the unoccupied jobs on the radio, the farmer hired 20 American citizens, the majority of whom quit almost immediately.
As citizens won’t work in these positions, it is unclear what employers would do if Oregon were ever to pass severe anti-immigration laws like Alabama and Arizona. One Oregon farmer, who supplies produce to stores around the Northwest, stated that without Latino immigrant labor he would have to downsize his business to 5% of its current size. Of the six hotels, nurseries, and farms contacted, all employ Latino immigrants and only the hotels felt they would be able to find replacements for these Latino workers. The majority of businesses reliant on immigrant labor would be greatly affected if Oregon passed severe anti-immigration laws, and the farms would be forced to significantly raise the price of the produce they sell.
This situation would leave both legal Oregon residents and undocumented people in a difficult place. All citizens are dependent on undocumented workers for labor, and undocumented workers are dependent on our state for employment. Without them, you would not be able to eat as many of the foods you enjoy and our economic growth would be stunted. However, many people are displeased with the current situation, and maintain that immigrants should come here legally, on a green card or some other visa. However, for the majority of immigrants, this isn’t a feasible option.
Part II: Obstacles to Legal Immigration
Few Latino immigrant families who come to the United States for low-paying work attempt to come legally. As one nineteen year old immigrant stated, “It was made pretty clear to me, at a young age, that there was no way for us to enter the process of becoming a permanent resident.” This is due, in large part, to the requirements enforced by the United States, which must be met to become a legal immigrant. Time, money, and the high probability that they will be denied entrance into the country make following the current legal path impractical for a population desperate to find work to support their families.
One way to become a legal resident of the US is to obtain a work visa. There are multiple types of visas available and the appropriate one is determined by category of work. Each type of visa has requirements which stipulate who can apply and who has the best chance of getting one; the two types of visas are permanent employment (green cards) and temporary employment.
A green card allows a person to live in the United States for as long as they want and gives them the opportunity to apply to become a citizen. H-2A and H-2B visas are temporary employment visas and are issued to seasonal or temporary workers. These visas allow a person to work in the United States for up to one year, but can be extended for up to three years. Each year, only 5,000 green cards and around 100,000 temporary employment visas are issued to “unskilled workers” across the United States. Although these numbers may sound large, they are in reality quite small. The H-2A visa, for example, is issued only to agricultural workers and accounts for less than three percent of the total agricultural workforce.
These low caps on immigration create long lines that clog the immigration system and force people to wait years before their applications are even reviewed. A report by the Immigration Policy Center found that in March of 2011, the United States Citizen and Immigration Service (USCIS) was just beginning to process green card applications of “unskilled” immigrants who applied in July of 2003.
Few “unskilled” immigrants can wait this long to have their fates determined. The majority of these workers are moving to the US to escape the comparatively low-paying jobs they are faced with at home or to join family members already residing here. By having to wait eight years or more to hear back from the government, they have little choice but to immigrate here illegally or face a life of extreme poverty in Mexico.
As shown by a chart created by the Reason Foundation (http://reason.org/files/cb299f0134ca8bb75243c69caa92eea7.pdf), it takes at least 12 to 18 months to immigrate to the United States legally and obtain a green card. For many immigrants, who have no family members in the US and are not considered skilled workers, the chance of becoming a legal resident is next to nothing. The chances are also low for the majority of undocumented workers already in the country, who, if detained and deported, can be subjected to a 10 year ban by the US government before they are again eligible to apply for a green card. Anybody who has crossed the border without documents more than two times is permanently barred from living in the US.
These many barriers that have been placed in the paths of “unskilled” workers hurt both our economy and the people themselves. Without change, our immigration system will fall into greater disrepair, and we risk losing a vital sector of Oregon’s workforce.
Part III: The Future of Immigration
As the United States economy grows, so will our country’s dependence on people who work in essential but poorly paid low-skill jobs. However, the number of Latino immigrants coming here to work these jobs is projected to decrease as the Mexican economy becomes stronger. The population growth in Mexico is also expected to drop to the current United States levels in the next 40 years, potentially opening up job opportunities within Mexico for many Mexican citizens. While this will, most likely, raise the wages of most undocumented workers, for many people, the risk involved in getting here will no longer outweigh the need for money, since both money and jobs will be available to them in their native country.
The many men and women who have immigrated here legally and illegally and have worked in these jobs will eventually cease to work, and their children will grow up to work in higher paying jobs like the millions of other immigrant children before them. Of the three undocumented people I spoke with for this article, all had immigrated here as young children and are now in college and looking to better futures and a path to eventual citizenship. As a country, the US owes these people a way to citizenship after all they have done for our nation’s economy and its citizens’ standard of living.
In the past few years, some steps have been taken to help undocumented people better their lives, but other measures have made their lives more difficult.
In 2012, President Obama implemented parts of the DREAM Act into law, giving undocumented people who came here before the age of sixteen and who currently are under thirty the right to apply for deferred action. Deferred action allows undocumented people to work in the United States and protects them from deportation.
However, Oregon took a step backward in 2008 when it passed Senate Bill 1080, which requires proof of citizenship to obtain a driver’s license. The full effect of this bill will not be felt until 2016, but at that time it is estimated that more than 80,000 people in our workforce will no longer be able to drive legally.
Many people are already being affected; as one undocumented immigrant pointed out, “there are a lot of people who drive without a license, and it’s not because they’re bad people or they want to go against the law, but it’s because it’s a necessity”.
Without a license people cannot easily commute to work, buy groceries, or do other essential endeavors many people take for granted. This bill will continue to produce greater problems for both employers and employees as 2016 becomes nearer, and will leave many people with no choice but to drive without a license.
What should our state and country do for the hundreds of thousands of employers of undocumented people, and for the undocumented people themselves? Programs like the Bracero Program, which let Mexican farm workers come to the US to work during WWII, were helpful to farmers but unfair to the workers who worked hard for little profit and had no way of becoming legal residents.
The most obvious change our government can make to benefit immigrants is issue more visas, both temporary and permanent, for “unskilled workers.” Another option would be to increase the efficiency of our visa programs so that people do not have to wait years to hear back from our government. If the United States was to provide more permanent visas and rethink the process by which people are naturalized, both employers and workers would benefit and be able to better build their businesses and support their families.
As one undocumented college student pointed out, “we’re not bad people, we want to do good things for this country, for the community.”