Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Immigrants: The People Who Do Our Work - Part 4 of 6

If illegal immigrants are determined workers and we need them so badly, a casual observer might wonder, why don’t they enter the country legally in the first place? That’s what our ancestors did, isn’t it?

The current generation of immigrants would do that, too, but under current law, it’s practically impossible to enter the United States to work, according to Gloria Roman, an immigration counselor for NY Catholic Charities who works with hopeful immigrants in Yonkers, New Rochelle, Port Chester, Peekskill, and Mount Vernon, NY. She says there are only four ways to immigrate legally: through petition by a close family member who already lives here with permanent legal status or citizenship; through sponsored employment in a very few skills areas (Nobel prize winners are automatically admitted—really); by seeking asylum from personal persecution; or by winning one of a handful of visas in the State-Department-run lottery.

Petition by an immediate family member is the way 65% of the 51,513 persons who immigrated to Westchester County in the 1990s got here, according to the Citizenship and Immigration Services. Today, Roman reports, that is not an easy route. Even if there are no hitches, a family/relative petition can take a year just to process. Plus, she says, “In order for a person to be here, their sponsor has to show they have financial resources so the person won’t become a public burden. If you’re living at the poverty level yourself, that’s impossible.” She tells the story of a man in Port Chester. He is a legal permanent resident (i.e., has a coveted green card, which allows him to live and work here although he is not a citizen) who wants to bring his wife and three kids to America from Mexico. The man makes $15,000 per year. The government required him to show earnings of $32,000 to support a family of five.

Country-of-origin quotas are another big obstacle to legal immigration. Even if you otherwise qualify, according to the Citizenship and Immigration Services, you may be delayed for years by the State Department, which actually issues the visas according to formulas dictated by law. On the surface, the system sounds fair and relatively innocuous. Congress limits the total number of family preference and employment visas combined to 366,000 total each year. Where it gets tricky is that no more than 7% of those—or 25,620—can come from any one country. The quotas for Mexico are oversubscribed immediately every year; those for Liechtenstein and Iceland go unused.

The thicket of immigration law is one few professionals can navigate, much less those from outside the system with a rudimentary grasp of the language. “Before the 1996 laws, out of a hundred people who came to immigration lawyers, you could help 65% of them. Now you can help maybe two,” says Vanessa Merton, Supervising Attorney of the Immigration Justice Clinic at John Jay Legal Service at Pace University in White Plains.

“The problem is the system is so difficult to navigate,” says Anthony Uzzo, a painting contractor in Katonah, NY. “I’ve tried to help guys, even help them fill out the forms, but even I couldn’t figure out what they had to do. ”

Part 4 of 6 (originally published in a slightly different version inWestchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

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