While Republicans want high walls and cameras and Democrats want amnesty, the final immigration reform will have to be a moderate approach that will likely include both heavy border security and legalization with fines. The debate currently roaring is focused on two extremes: Conservatives want to create as much pain as possible for immigrants and their families for "breaking the rules" and stepping to the "front of the line"; while liberals want a complete amnesty that might be a political impossibility. In part, the debate has stagnated with the same rhetoric on each side and neither side wanting to compromise. It's time for a new approach.
As the Executive Director of a nonprofit in East Los Angeles that services an immigrant population, I see the realities of the undocumented. It is a known fact that immigrants in general face higher levels of poverty than the general population, but the realities of the undocumented go beyond abject poverty. Many toil in below minimum wage jobs, with employers sometimes threatening to call immigration or withhold pay. While some would argue this is the price for better wages and a better life, this price is too high.
In addition to living in substandard conditions in pursuit of the "American Dream", undocumented children, families and adults lack connection with their communities for fear they might be found out. This fear deters them from connecting with many of the social institutions that could help them. While some join local social clubs, churches or unions, most do not. The fear of their status ties many to their homes and limits their ability to garner resources. Essentially, being undocumented leads to financial, social, and emotional isolation. Immigration reform has the potential to eliminate this isolation and create a genuine connection between immigrants and their communities. However, with the current proposed immigration reform, eliminating isolation could prove very difficult. The proposed reform, in its current form, serves to unduly tax undocumented immigrants who already spend too much time away from their families at jobs that are far below living wage.
As currently envisioned, individual immigrants and families would pay between $5,000 and $15,000 for legalization. Already earning less than any other group in the country, this amount will devastate many families. Income that might have been used to pay for medical care and housing would have to go to pay for legalization. Make no mistake, undocumented immigrants are willing to pay these proposed fines. Any undocumented immigrant will tell you that they would go hungry to save enough money to become legal residents. Many of these immigrants have risked life and limb to come to the United States, they will certainly spend great sums of money to stay. As a matter of public policy, however, our government should not gauge the validity of taxation merely by people's willingness to pay it.
While the political reality is that immigrants will likely need to pay a price for legalization, what should this price look like? I propose that the current bill be amended to give the option to have this "fine" paid through community service. Such a system has greater potential to create investment, not resentment. The bill might include the creation of regional Immigrant Community Service Banks that would connect the undocumented population to pre-approved nonprofits. The Banks would work in conjunction with nonprofits to have undocumented immigrants work a specified number of hours doing a variety of activities that benefit the community. The Immigrant Community Service Banks would become a clearing house for immigrants needing to fulfill community service hours and for nonprofits in search of volunteers to assist in carrying out good in the community. The benefits of such collaboration would yield longer lasting and more tangible returns than any monetary fine imposed on this country's undocumented population.
As citizens, we need to be aware that there is a population of 12 million people that have been isolated as the result of their undocumented status. These 12 million people consist of families with children ranging from infants to teenagers, female heads of households subsisting on single incomes, and undocumented children living in this country with relatives - hoping someday to be reunited with their parents. Creating systems where children, teenagers and those in extreme poverty would not have to be financially punished would not only demonstrate compassion, but could create a societal paradigm shift where immigrants are seen as vested members of the community worthy of respect and protection.
This country changed the lives of million with the legalization process of 1987. It gave a home to people like my wife who, because of the legalization process, was able to go to college. Today she holds a Masters degree in Social Work, is a licensed therapist, and helps head the Salvation Army Social Services Department, one of the largest social services providers in LA County. This opportunity might have been lost with today's proposed reform; a loss not only to her personally, but certainly to our community- and if I may add - to myself because I met her in college. Let's not shut the door on others who like her could only enhance our communities.
Finally, creating systems where immigrants could volunteer and develop a stake in their communities would be smart for a country looking to reestablish its credibility both domestically and internationally.
What do you think?
Gabriel Buelna, Ph.D., MSW is Executive Director of Plaza Community Center in East Los Angeles and a faculty member in the Chicana/o Studies Department at Cal State Northridge. You can visit his blog