Significant disagreements remain, but a civil conversation has begun.
The Community Relations Commission’s forum on immigration filled the Goshen High School auditorium Thursday evening, with healthy representation from both sides of the issue in the audience, as well as on stage. Of those on the stage, the first to take the microphone after introductions was keynote speaker Steve Nolt, who discussed the historical background of immigration in the United States, which he called the narrative of the country’s history.
According to Nolt, more people have entered the country than left every year from 1600 to the present with the exception of 1932-35, during the Great Depression. Additionally, the percentage of U.S. residents that were foreign-born remained at a relative constant of between 13 and 14 percent for much of the country’s history, but hit an odd low point in 1970 of just 4.7 percent before climbing back to 12.5 percent by 2009. Nolt believes that is significant.
“If you want to know what issues are difficult for policymakers to deal with, look back 40 years, what life was like 40 years ago,” Nolt said. “Because often the most important, most influential policymakers at any point in time are people whose formative influences are 40 years old.”
Immigration wasn’t controlled until 1875, Nolt explained, when the U.S. Supreme Court designated immigration as an exclusively federal domain. For the following 40 years or so, various restrictions were put in place, largely aiming to block Asian immigrants, but Mexico and Canada were repeatedly exempt from those measures. It was not until 1942 with the Bracero worker program that Mexicans were directly addressed by U.S. immigrations policy, followed by a 1954 program to round up those Bracero workers who did not return to Mexico and send them back.
It wasn’t until 1965 and the enacting of the Hart-Celler Act that the roots of modern immigration law were put down. The act did away with racially discriminating categories from earlier 1924 legislation, limited the number of immigrants from the western hemisphere for the first time, officially ended the Bracero program and retained a cap on the total number of immigrants allowed into the country each year, but allotted visa slots in a way that “de-emphasized work skills and employment preferences,” according to Nolt.
Since 1990, Nolt said, the emphasis of debate on immigration has been on border enforcement.
For his part, respondent Bob Schrameyer of Citizens for Immigration Law Enforcement said his main argument is simple.
“We have laws on the books, we just need to enforce them,” Schrameyer said. “Why haven’t they been enforced? Power and money.”
Schrameyer referenced the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which he said gave amnesty to more than 2 million illegal immigrants and created the I-9 citizenship form, used by employers to verify employees’ identification. Schrameyer said the act was a failure because the law wasn’t enforced and the borders were not secured.
“So, who’s the loser in all this?” Schrameyer said. “The American worker.”
Schrameyer also referenced estimates that the U.S. cost related to illegal immigration is roughly $113 billion each year, with approximately $84 billion absorbed by the states, $608,000 by Indiana.
‘What does it mean?’
Saulo Padilla noted early in his comments that the past four U.S. presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush — have all called the country’s immigration system “broken.”
“What does it mean for us that the immigration system is broken?” Padilla said.
Padilla argued the system isn’t broken because of illegal immigration, but because the path to citizenship is too difficult and waiting lists are too long. Because of the quota placed on visas issued each year, he said it takes from 6 to 8 years for immigrant field and factory workers to get into the country legally.
Padilla also criticized the U.S. effort to build a wall at the border with Mexico. He said the wall is costing $7.5 million per mile, but when heavy rains pass through, they leave 2- to 3-foot wide holes underneath the fence.
Padilla also discussed negative affects of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the side effects of immigration legislation passed in Georgia. He said the law they put in place is working, pushing illegal immigrants out of the state.
“Now Georgia is looking for 11,700 people to work in their fields,” Padilla said. “In the last week they have lost $300 million.”