Divided Families

Divided Families: Power of Policy,930


Cronkite News Service

For years, immigration law in the United States has given an edge to families.

Those who can show that they have family members in this country make up the biggest percentage of those who are given permanent-resident status.

But if immigration laws ever get a serious overhaul _ something that Congress hasn’t been able to do for years _ the advantage for families divided by borders could be diminished, experts say.

In recent months, policy makers and public officials have talked seriously about scrapping the long-standing system that gives green cards, or permanent-resident status, primarily to immigrants who show they have close relatives in the United States or employers who want to sponsor them. They suggest a new system that would award points to foreigners who speak English, are educated and have certain job skills.

A bill that would have ushered in just such a system stalled in the U.S. Senate last summer, but those on both sides of the immigration issue say the debate is far from over.

“I don’t think it’s a dead concept,” said Bryan Griffith, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that advocates for less immigration. “Many other countries have switched over recently, Australia being the best example.”

Griffith said most people recognize the need for some family-based immigration, but the current emphasis on family ties can lead to illegal immigration. Family members who are accepted into the country often send for relatives back home who come, sometimes illegally, he said.

“It’s a very emotional issue, so it may be very difficult to (change the system),” Griffith said. “But I certainly don’t think (the idea) is dead.”

Michael Wilson, the Canadian ambassador to the United States, said he has fielded questions from U.S. legislators interested in how the Canadian system works.
Canada was the first country to go to a point or merit system, adopting it in 1967. Family-based immigration and refugees make up a percentage of those given permanent-resident status in Canada, but the majority of immigrants are admitted based on points awarded in such areas as language, education, occupation and work experience. Those with enough points can apply for, and attain, permanent residence.

At first Canada’s system limited immigration to an “elite” subset of applicants, Wilson said, but the criteria were revised to allow a wider variety of workers and the system has “worked in Canada pretty darn well,” he said.

Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, chair of Arizona State University’s Transborder Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies Department, said that the United States already has a de facto point system because employers can sponsor people with certain skills that are in demand, such as engineers or computer programmers. But he said more innovative ways are needed to deal with immigration than simply a point system.

“We should have a rationalized way for people to cross the border to see family and work occasionally,” he said.

Vélez-Ibáñez points to a Canadian agricultural-worker program as an example. Immigrants spend three months in Canada and then they leave, he said. “They go back to Mexico and till their own farms.”

While in Canada, the workers are given housing and medical care and are protected under Canadian law. “It has worked beautifully,” he said. “Why? Because the Canadians took a highly rationalized approach. I think this country can learn a hell of a lot from Canada’s experience.”

President Bush and some Arizona legislators are supporting programs based on the same principle _ bringing in workers temporarily to fill gaps in the labor force. A proposal under consideration in the Arizona House of Representatives would allow employers in the state who are experiencing a labor shortage to recruit workers from Mexico.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón said in a speech last September that immigration from Mexico to the United States presently tears apart Mexican society, but the economy demands a flow of people between the two countries.

“Migration is a natural phenomenon socially, economically inevitable and, I would say, also economically convenient for the economy of North America as a region,” Calderón told the 25th Border Governors Conference, held in Puerto Peñasco, Sonora. “There probably aren’t in the world two neighboring economies that are so clearly complementary as the United States’ and the Mexican economies.”

Vélez-Ibáñez agreed that the two economies function as one.

“It’s not an American economy. It’s not a Mexican economy,” he said. “It’s a transborder economy.”

He said Mexican citizens have labored throughout the southwestern region of North America for hundreds of years and without Mexican labor, “most of the infrastructure of what we see in southern Arizona and in New Mexico and in southern California from the 19th century on couldn’t have happened _ period.”

“Prior to this whole stuff on immigration, people were going back and forth,” he added. “What needed to be done an awful long time ago was border passes to work if jobs are available. The European Union has been doing this for 40 years.”

Immigration reform will only be successful if it takes into account the far-reaching economic implications of immigrant labor, Vélez-Ibáñez added.

“You cannot have an immigration system unless you fundamentally understand the political economy,” he said. “If you’re not willing to take that on, the rest falls apart. They’re all bandages.”

In his September speech, Calderón reminded officials that immigration policy also has a profound effect on families. “We are not gladdened by immigration because we know that our families are divided, that our towns are divided, that our communities are divided,” he said.


PHOTOS: Click thumbnails to see full-resolution images and download

Ribbons on a cross on the Agua Prieta side of the Arizona-Mexico border represent people who have died crossing the desert. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Deanna Dent)

A man peeks through an opening in the border wall built between Agua Prieta, Mexico and Douglas, Ariz. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Courtney Sargent)

A border wall a few miles from the U.S.-Mexico border near Agua Prieta, Mexico, and Douglas, Ariz. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Courtney Sargent)