Saturday, July 21, 2007

Let’s stop pretending

[Original source: unknown ]

America, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t pretend to be for family values and impose uncanny barriers on immigrants reuniting with their loved ones. We can’t be pro-business and drive underground a large segment of our labor force. We can’t favor a living wage and allow businesses to exploit undocumented workers. We can’t be part of a global economy and shun bilingualism. We can’t be proud of ourselves as a nation of immigrants and continue to vilify and ostracize immigrants. We can’t have food on our tables and a roof over our heads while ignoring the rights of hard-working immigrants who harvest our crops and build our homes.

Immigration is the new hot button issue in our communities. We all are suffering the consequences as Congress continues to waiver on resolving this complex issue. The worst of our history is now repeating itself as we hear unabashed anti-immigrant rhetoric printed in our newspapers and promoted by radio hosts and politicians.

The accusations being shouted against immigrants today are as racist and unreasonable as they have always been. These same words were aimed at the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese and others. With each immigration wave, the more established immigrant communities worry that “these people” are bringing crime and disease, are a drain to the system, are refusing to “assimilate” and are not learning English. Somehow, America always manages to be bigger than the sum of its parts, and wave after wave of immigrants have learned English, put their kids through school, advanced economically and integrated into this nation within one to two generations.

Why is there an assumption that Latinos are any different?

We need a serious dose of honesty with ourselves and with each other. North Carolina has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation (in Chatham County the rate is even lower), and in 2006 we had a $2 billion surplus in our coffers. The positive economic impact of Latinos in North Carolina is estimated to be over $9 billion per year and has the potential of being even higher if undocumented people are allowed to integrate by earning a path to legalization. The argument that immigrants are a drain to the system simply doesn’t hold true.

One of the most common concerns that I hear about the undocumented population is that they are not paying taxes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Immigrants, documented or not, who are working in processing plants, factories, the service industry and every other sector have federal, state and FICA/Medicare taxes taken out of their paychecks, just like everyone else. The difference is that undocumented workers are not entitled to Medicare or Social Security benefits, even as they are paying into the system. What is true is that many undocumented immigrants are not filing their income tax returns, which is very different from not paying taxes, and, if they filed, many would be entitled to refunds. The IRS now has millions of dollars in unclaimed tax refunds.

A few years back, the IRS began reaching out to Latino centers to encourage them to help Latinos apply for an ITIN (Individual Tax Identification Number). The ITIN is a nine-digit number assigned by the IRS for tax-filing purposes to anyone who’s not entitled to a Social Security number, such as foreign investors who are not residents or U.S. citizens. More recently, with the growth of the undocumented community, the IRS saw an opportunity to set its own records straight and encouraged workers currently ineligible for a Social Security number to apply for an ITIN, allowing them to file taxes in their own name and, if applicable, claim their tax refunds for overpayment of taxes throughout the year. It is worth noting that in order for anyone to become a legal resident, they must prove to Homeland Security that they have filed income taxes for all the years they have lived in the U.S., legally or not; this rule has been in place for a long time and it will apply if Congress agrees on immigration reform in this session. As undocumented immigrants learn about this through immigration attorneys, the media and Hispanic centers, more and more are applying for ITINs and filing their current and past years’ income taxes. It must be clarified that an ITIN cannot be used to apply for employment and it is not a substitute for a work permit.

As the immigration debate rages on, many more U.S. citizens are realizing that it is unfeasible and unconscionable to consider enforcement-only strategies to resolve this issue. Currently, there may be 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., at least 25 percent of whom are not of Hispanic/Latino descent. It would take the deportation of approximately 1,000 immigrants a day for the next 30 to 40 years to “rid” America of its current undocumented immigrant population. This is not a workable solution and is doomed to failure. Besides, what would farmers, construction companies, service industries and factories do without their labor force? Move abroad? Lure in a whole new set of immigrants? From China, perhaps?
We can’t have it both ways. If we’re to keep America vibrant and keep our businesses within our borders, we must take collective responsibility for the workers that we have lured into the country and we must treat them like human beings. Right now, you and I are benefiting from and eating the fruits of an underground immigrant workforce.

We see today a terrible proliferation of what I call “Juan Cuervo” (“John Crow”) laws – with states and municipalities going beyond the rule of federal law to impose their own restrictions on immigrant communities out of fear, ignorance and vengeance.

Thankfully, some are also choosing to make their towns safe havens for immigrants because they recognize and understand that immigrant labor has infused their municipalities with economic opportunities and prosperity.

Many of us are dismayed by immigration reform proposals coming from Congress that would change our immigration system from employment and family based to a classist point system that places a higher value on education and wealth versus family ties. This is an unprecedented approach, ironically coming from the party of “family values.” Families will not bear being divided, no matter what the law says.

We take much pride in the Statue of Liberty, our most recognized symbol of freedom.

The torch she holds is a symbol of enlightenment; it lights the way to freedom and shows us the path to Liberty. More important are the words carved on this symbol: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

May we never forget that we are a nation of immigrants with all the gifts and challenges that this brings. It is time to fix our broken immigration system and bring millions of immigrants into the lit path of freedom, liberty and democracy.

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