United States immigration policy comes into focus

President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, February 12, 2013. (Olivier Douliery/ Abaca Press/ MCT)

Photo: Olivier Douliery

President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, February 12, 2013. (Olivier Douliery/ Abaca Press/ MCT)

By Sam Barton, Staff Writer

Numbers are a funny thing. Sometimes the really small ones — and the really big ones — are hard to wrap your mind around.  For example, an estimated 11 million people living in the United States today are here illegally. How many is that?  Well, to put it into perspective, consider that the estimated population of the state of Ohio is 11.5 million people.

The number of illegal immigrants is so large that it captures the attention of all kinds of people, and President Barack Obama put the issue squarely in front of the U.S. people when he included it in his State of the Union address this year.

Obama has called for “a comprehensive immigration reform bill.” This bill would be a four-part plan to increase border security, crack down on the employers of illegal immigrants, offer earned citizenship, and streamline the citizenship process. The goal is to fix the apparent flaws of the immigration system of the United States.

The proposal:

The proposal has four parts. First, the United States’ borders allow around 300,000 illegal immigrants into the country each year, allowing criminals to smuggle drugs and people into the United States. To combat this, Obama’s plan would provide harsher penalties for criminals and smugglers as well as laws to weaken the criminal organizations themselves.

Second, the United States also houses thousands of businesses that employ illegal immigrants as a cheap alternative to American citizens. In response, the plan calls for better, tamper-free Social Security cards, stricter requirements to prove authorization to work in the United States, a federal database to verify legal immigrants available for hire, as well as harsher punishment for the employers of illegal immigrants.

Third, the United States citizenship process is a long, expensive process that would be clogged by the applications of 11 million illegal immigrants. Obama’s proposal calls for a new temporary legal status for illegal immigrants, a status that can be achieved after extensive background checks and fees. These immigrants would then be placed at the back of the line for United States’ citizenship.

Finally, the proposed immigration policy attempts to solve moral issues with illegal immigration. It would allow families to be kept together, allowing applications based on a permanent relationship with a United States resident. It calls for a quicker, easier process for their obtainment of residence in the United States.

The history:

However, this plan for immigration reform is not the first attempt to fix the United States’ immigration system. A law regarding illegal immigrants received scrutiny in 1982 for giving what many considered amnesty to those who had entered the United States illegally prior to 1982. Amnesty is a general pardon granted by a government for a crime. In the 1980s, people questioned rewarding immigrants whose very presence in the United States was in violation of U.S. law.

While the immigration issues now and in the 1980s are similar, the situation is different.

“The situation in the ’80s was a much smaller scale and dealt with a much different population than what we are dealing with now,” said Jennifer Richardson, a World History, U.S. History and Government teacher at Fairmont High School. “The key difference between the 1980s and now was the focus on refugees. There was a large influx of refugees coming into the United States both legally and illegally in the late ’70s and early ’80s from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. They were all trying to escape communist rule.”

But the history of immigration regulation goes back much further than the 1980s, and the controversy is often caused by a large population entering the United States from one general region of the world. “Throughout history, there has always been a population that has been picked on,” said Richardson. “There was the Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1900s, which prohibited immigrants from specific regions of Asia, and the Gentleman’s Agreement that tried to stop the flow of Japanese laborers into the United States.”

Before the uproar about Asian immigration, however, Richardson said Americans were suspicious of the Irish. “Americans hated the Irish. Then there was another minority to pick on, and the Irish didn’t seem so bad,” she said. “Now we don’t have an issue with Asian immigration or Irish immigration, we have an issue with Mexican immigration. There is always going to be some group of immigrants to pick on. It is just a question of, ‘Who is it today?’ ”

The controversy:

The proposal by President Obama, which has bipartisan support in the House of Representatives and the Senate, deals directly with the issue of illegal immigration.

“The issue today is that we have such a large population of illegal immigrants, and a lot of them have been here for decades,” said Richardson. “Their families have been here, too. They’ve established lives here and the question is, what do we do with them? Do we hunt them out and force them home – or what we consider their ‘home’ because a lot of them consider the United States as their home. Or do we find a way to make it so they can stay without having to go through the entire process and overload the immigration system?”

In terms of employers who hire people who are in the country illegally, many Americans dislike the notion of immigrants taking American jobs. “The universal problem is ‘they’re stealing our jobs,’ ” said Richardson. “Well, the Chinese were welcomed in the United States while unwanted rail jobs were available. However, once the railroads were built,  Americans felt that the Chinese were unwelcome, and these feelings cascaded into the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

“The railroad jobs were not the easiest jobs to do, and the jobs that a lot of immigrants do now are not the easiest jobs to do,” Richardson continued. “So it’s a question of: Are they stealing jobs that American citizens actually want, or are they providing a service that we need to have done, but nobody really wants to do?”

John Butchko, who teaches World History and AP U.S. History at Fairmont, says many aren’t opposed to immigration into the United States, but they question the justice of allowing a group of people who violated U.S. laws to enter the country.

“I would like anyone who wants to come to the United States to come here,” said Butchko. “But I also believe that if there is a law that says you have to get in line and wait, you should do it legally.” Although the new plan puts immigrants at the back of the citizenship line, by being in the country, they skip ahead of those in foreign countries wishing to emigrate.

In the early 1980s, amnesty was to be granted as a one-time-deal to address the illegal immigration crisis. Thousands of illegal immigrants entered a stadium or meeting center, raised their right hands, and were sworn in as United States citizens. Many feel as though politicians are trying to repeating what was supposed to be a special circumstance.

Some who are old enough to have witnessed the one-time-only promises of the 1980s question this new proposal. But some younger Americans don’t take past promises into account and thus question the moralities and motivations of those who oppose the new immigration plan.

Those who sympathize with the illegal immigrants’ plight also see a moral dilemma in the issue. Amy Dunaway-Haney is Fairmont Spanish teacher who includes aspects of the illegal immigration issue in her lessons. She teaches the hardships that illegal immigrants face, showing movies that give various perspectives on the issue.

“I think sometimes they come here thinking that it is going to be so easy,” said Haney. “Then they find out that they are considered to be illegals, meaning that they are discriminated against, they can’t get jobs, they can’t read and they can’t drive. They face poverty, a language barrier, a lack of education and being apart from their families.”

Haney feels that some United States immigration policies need change. “I’m against separating families,” said Haney. “I am also against the deportation of people who have children that are U.S. citizens, who have been in the United States for 20 years, who were raised in the United States, who were educated in the United States, and don’t even speak Spanish – just because they were pulled over for a speeding ticket.”

However, Haney understands both sides of the debate. “I also can’t say that I agree with someone who is sitting in another country and trying to apply and pay and following the law, only to be passed over because other people came here by breaking the rules,” she said. “I think it is a very complicated issue, and that is why, for hundreds of years, we have not come up with a better solution than we have.”

Additionally, many dislike the citizenship process of the United States government. Joanna Fadel is a senior at Fairmont High School who was born in Canada. She has been a resident in the United States for most of her life and recently achieved citizenship. However, it cost $600 for the papers to prove her citizenship.

“The process in gaining U.S. citizenship is close to impossible for some people. It took my dad 15 years and thousands of dollars to finally get it,” said Fadel. “I find it funny because I consider my dad to be more American than most Americans, but it took the government over a decade to authenticate it. I think the process of gaining a citizenship should be a little less ridiculously long and expensive because a lot of people don’t have the money and time to go through with it.”

As the nation awaits the outcome of this newest immigration reform initiative, the debate over immigration will continue.

“Personally, I think that we are a nation of immigrants,” said Richardson. “To say that we are going to close borders, like a lot of people suggest, is not really what the United States is based on. I think that there does need to be a less flawed immigration process, and I think that this plan is trying to accomplish that.”