In January, 2013, President Obama made the announcement that many of us interested in immigration reform have been waiting to hear: that this administration is going to do something to fix our broken immigration system. Under the Obama immigration proposal, the millions of people who are in the United States without documentation would be given a path to citizenship. We say hooray and it’s about time.
Often when people think of immigration reform, they think of it in abstract terms. But the truth is that the current system has a deep impact right here in New Jersey. We see it as close as with the workers we serve in Palisades Park, many of whom are undocumented and who are victimized by below-minimum wage pay, unsafe work environments and wage theft. That’s right, all too often these men work hard for a contractor and at the end of a week (or a month or longer sometimes) they are told no pay is coming. If they protest, they are threatened with exposure to the immigration authorities. This is not the New Jersey (nor the America) we want to live in.
An analysis of 2010 U.S. Census data reveals that about 6% of New Jersey’s population is undocumented. They represent about 8.6% of our work force, ranking us only behind California and Texas in percentage of undocumented workers. That’s approximately 550,000 people in New Jersey alone, making a significant contribution to the construction, landscaping, farming and hospitality industries, to name only a few. They are not “those illegal immigrants.” They are our neighbors, who make our lives more pleasant and affordable and who pay taxes. (Yes, they pay taxes, from sales taxes to income taxes). Their labor is essential, but their current situations are unfair and untenable.
Current immigration laws create all kinds of unfair situations for the undocumented. Here are a few:
- Very often they pay payroll taxes, but they are ineligible for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and more. We’re exploiting them.
- Many are long-term residents of New Jersey, but can’t take advantage of residency benefits, such as in-state college tuition.
- If they are stopped by police, they run the risk of being put into the rampantly unfair immigration detention system, where they have no right to a lawyer, no right to a speedy trial and can often be cut off from the world for months, even if they’re found not guilty of the offense for which they were originally picked up.
- They suffer terrible family separation issues. When one member of a family is undocumented but others (such as children) are citizens, parents get deported, children get put into foster care and families get torn asunder.
- They are disproportionately victims of crime, and their fear of the police (brought on by the very real fear that their immigration status may make them vulnerable to deportation) makes them much less likely to report crimes such as domestic abuse, theft and rape.
Bringing everyone into the light and giving them a path to citizenship makes a stronger New Jersey and a better America. If we continue to hold the ideals on which this country was founded – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – it is time to give our undocumented neighbors a chance to live fully realized lives as contributing, thriving members of society. It is time for comprehensive immigration reform.
By Maria E. Andreu