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We Need Problem Solving Immigration Reform, Not Enforcement Only

December 7, 2011

For years I had straddled the fence on illegal immigration, and this news story is why. Postville, Iowa is a tiny town not unlike the one I grew up in. They have a large immigrant population which works in agribusiness, in this case a kosher meat packing plant. Many of the immigrant workers were here illegally, either having come illegally in the first place or simply overstaying their original visitor visas. They were here with their family and were part of the community. In 2008 the federal government raided the plant and deported much of the workforce. Many who weren’t caught in the raid left on their own out of fear they would be caught next or that their job would be lost anyway.

To the enforcement only crowd this action is hailed as a win. The owners of the plant were punished for hiring illegal workers, and new owners have taken over and use e-verify to screen the legal status of the plant’s workers.

To the amnesty crowd the raid is called deplorable, harmful to families and to the community. They say the illegal immigrant workers were a part of the town and had laid down roots in the community. They had kids in the schools, went to its churches, and bought from its stores. They were just like any other person in this town, except they lacked a stupid piece of paper.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between.

According to interviews of townspeople, the immigrant community was welcomed by the town. They had truly become part of the community. These low paying labor intensive jobs provided for their families and for many were a stepping stone to better paying careers. Take the case of Svetlana Vanchugova, a Ukrainian immigrant who came here on a visitor visa and became an illegal immigrant once that visa expired. She was a university professor who came to the United States for its opportunity of a fresh start. She worked packing chickens for three years, and later moved up to become the quality control manager for the entire plant. She now teaches English classes at the local public school.

After the immigration raid, and following the use of e-verify, the factory jobs were not filled with locals, as many enforcement only advocates say will happen. Instead, the new owners had to scour the country looking for workers. They found them, but these were different than before. Instead of an immigrant community of families laying down roots, they are single men with no ties to the area, and with a high turnover rate. This is clearly a move for the worse for this small town.

However, the idyllic picture some paint of the previous illegal immigrant families’ situation isn’t quite accurate either. While in many ways the previous form of immigrant labor was beneficial for both town and immigrant, there was a definite dark underbelly. The raid exposed numerous crimes perpetrated on the workers by their employers – physical and even sexual abuse, and violations of child labor laws. These went unreported because the victims were afraid of deportation. This is a common example of how some employers exploit illegal immigrants via immigration laws. This is neither good for the immigrant nor the community at large.

This situation is why a sound and comprehensive reform is needed. I can think of no good reason why the people working in that factory should have been denied the proper paperwork to do so. None. They had lived and worked there for years, had started families and contributed to the community. What moral right do we have to deny them the life they had scraped out for themselves? Yet, there being here without proper documents creates numerous and harmful problems, both for themselves and the people of their town. This cannot be ignored. But rather than having the feds swoop in and replace community minded immigrant families with single workers who don’t stay long, why can’t we simply offer these families a way to get their documents? Utah has gone down the path of doing just that with HB116. Had this law been in effect in Iowa, the little town of Postville would have been able to keep all the good effects they’d enjoyed through immigration, while lessening the bad. It is this kind of helpful, problem-solving legislation that this country needs.

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From → Immigration, Politics

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