Immigration reform is coming and we are keeping the Sarasota area informed.
Last week, in our ongoing effort to know what Sarasota residents think about immigration reform, we attended a talk hosted by the Sarasota Nation Discussion Group by noted attorney Greg Schell. Greg Schell graduated from Harvard Law School and is currently working with the “Gang of 8” Senators to craft the farm worker aspect of immigration reform. He represents low-wage workers in Florida.
To illustrate the fact that we live in a global economy and immigration is an issue everywhere, Mr. Schell began by telling the story of Haitians who travel to the Dominican Republic every year to cut sugarcane, a job that Dominicans are apparently unwilling to do. Many of these Haitians end up staying and starting families in the DR, as well as using publicly-funded services such as education. At the same time many Dominicans travel to Puerto Rico every year to pick cotton. And many Puerto Ricans travel to the United States every year to work on Eastern farms. Jobs in the Maquiladoras on the US-Mexico border are actually disappearing and going to China. Immigration has no easy answers.
The last major piece of reform in the U.S. was the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act – IRCA. Before IRCA it was not illegal to hire an undocumented alien. The immigrant population was small, concentrated in 10-15 states, and there was no global economy. Organized labor fought against increased immigration.
When IRCA passed it legalized 2.7 million people. Employers now had to use the I-9 form to document new workers. Workers had to prove their legal status by showing a green card or other documentation. Documents were easily forged. In 1988 95% of immigrants were legal. Fifteen years later 95% are undocumented.
In 1998 Congress compounded the issue by mandating that an illegal alien marrying a citizen had to leave the country for ten years first, and that legal immigrants couldn’t receive social security until after paying in for ten years first. This policy is now largely null thanks to the new Stateside Waiver. Border security became important after 9/11.
Today the issues are similar to what they were in 1986 except the number of undocumented immigrants is much larger – 11 million as opposed to 2.7 million. The issue of “Temporary Protected Status” puts people in legal limbo and should be addressed. Businesses want to increase the number of work visas but the opportunities for abuse are high. Immigrants who are in the country on work visas can only work for the sponsoring employer and are regularly paid lower comparative wages. Mr. Schell is also concerned about the possibility of guest workers taking the jobs of newly legalized residents.
Business and Labor are united on the need to reform immigration. The business community, especially many IT firms, would like to be able to bring more guest workers in to the country. Currently the government allots 65,000 work visas a year. Some proposals would increase that number to 360,000. Labor unions want to organize these workers and work towards better conditions for the ones who are already here. The last election demonstrated that immigration reform could have implications for national politics and many legislators seem anxious to get something done.
Mr. Schell supported immigration reform and he is working to ensure that guest workers and farm workers have a place at the negotiating table when the legislation is crafted.