September 7, 2001

Amnesty for Undocumented Workers Would Boost Economies, Bring People Out of Shadows

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — A proposed amnesty for more than 3 million undocumented Mexican workers and their families might help all Latinos in the United States, particularly those in rural communities, where they are often viewed with suspicion, say two Indiana University professors.

Jorge Chapa, IU professor and director of Latino Studies, and Ann Millard, a Michigan State University professor, recently surveyed Latino immigrants. They found that 55 percent of the immigrants interviewed felt they were viewed with suspicion, 18 percent have experienced hostility and 5 percent have been victims of violence.

Eileen McConnell, a visiting associate professor of Latino studies at IU and the principal investigator for a U.S. Census Bureau contract on Latino demographics, has chronicled the history of immigration and the cultural changes in towns that have large populations of Latino immigrants.

The findings by Chapa and Millard are of special concern because of the continuing large influx of Hispanic people in many towns and cities in Indiana and across the Midwest.

The proposed amnesty would benefit both the United States and Mexico economically and provide basic human rights protection to a group of people who often live in danger and secrecy, Chapa said. Undocumented workers often are placed in dangerous jobs and must live without the benefits of even the poorest Americans.

"If an immigrant gets robbed, he can't go to the police. If he is sick or injured to the severest degree, he can't go to the hospital," Chapa said. "To further exacerbate the risk, undocumented workers typically live in areas of higher crime and work the most dangerous jobs. Basically, these workers are risking their lives to provide for their families that are still living in their native countries."

He observed that illegal immigrants are helping to hold the U.S. economy together because of their willingness to work in jobs that often are unpleasant, dirty and dangerous, with no prospects for upward mobility. This fuels a strong desire by U.S. employers to hire them as workers.

"If President Bush were to accept this proposal, it would give illegal workers the most basic form of American rights and citizenship and would help to alleviate the danger and pressure faced by the illegal worker population," Chapa said. "The details of this proposal would be key to judging if it could work to the benefit of the immigrants, their employers and the governments of the United States and Mexico."

The boom in undocumented workers can be attributed to a variety of factors. "American employers perceive the immigrant workers as reliable, flexible, punctual and willing to work overtime," Chapa said. "In addition, the immigrant transnational labor recruitment networks are an easy and powerful way to bring eager new workers to an employer's doorstep with little or no effort on his part."

Both government restrictions and their lack of enforcement are helping sustain the illegal worker population. "Strict enforcement of the borders has turned temporary migrants into permanent ones," Chapa said. "An illegal worker faces serious life-and-death consequences if he or she chooses to cross the border numerous times. Once they get into the United States, they are reluctant to leave. Also, employer sanctions for using illegal laborers are rarely enforced."

The money sent back to their families is worth the risk to undocumented workers. Chapa said a worker who sends back $300 per month to his family in Mexico will put his family in the middle class of their society.

"These remittances help the native country as a whole," he said. "Remittances sent back to Mexico, which are estimated at around $10 billion per year, are one of the highest sources of income for the entire country and have been vital to Latin American countries for decades."

McConnell said undocumented workers surfaced in America in the early 1900s to work jobs abandoned by European immigrants. "Popular employment for early illegal immigrants included the sugar beet industry, fruit harvesting, and manufacturing plants," she said. "From the early 1900s, and especially around World Wars I and II, and during times of low unemployment rates, the illegal worker has done the work that nobody else wanted to do. But when things turn sour, like the Great Depression, the illegal immigrants are the first ones to get blamed."

Although the undocumented worker population lives in the background of American society, the American public is feeling their presence on a cultural and legal basis. "Americans appreciate the undocumented workers' work, but they will not be acknowledged for their hard work and hostility toward them won't decline until something is done by the government to help their status," Chapa said. "They want and need to have the same basic rights that all people working in this country have.

"It is essential for Latinos to build ethnic communities in the Midwest to help to cope with the distances of their native culture and traditions," he said. "They have tried to persuade Catholic churches to honor their popular patron saint, the Virgin of Guadeloupe, and to observe her feast days. They have established mutual aid societies and civic organizations that celebrate Mexican holidays. Latino food markets are popping up in towns where they seem out of place. Native townsfolk often see these processes as intrusions, and this is cause for a lot of the hostility."

Cities and towns have to adjust in other ways as well. "Schools and educational institutions are where a lot of the controversy exists," Chapa said. "All of a sudden, schools are being forced to hire bilingual teachers and implement bilingual education programs. Cities need to hire bilingual police officers and other officials to deal with problems that may arise."

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