USD forum draws intense feelings on immigration

Benno Wymar learned that illegal immigration strikes a nerve in Vermillion, even though the city lies nearly 1,500 miles from the Mexican border.

"I was putting up a poster for (Wednesday's) forum, that said, 'Too Many Immigrants?'" the retired University of South Dakota professor said.

"Someone saw the title and said, 'Yes! I hate Mexicans! They get our free health care and schooling!'"

That strong feeling against illegal immigration – including the new Arizona law creating fears of racial profiling ¬– was discussed during April 28's forum at Farber Hall.

The panel included three USD professors: Melissa O'Rourke of the law school, who specializes in immigration law; Rubi Mendez, who teaches Spanish; and Lucy Dai, who teaches sociology. They addressed legal, human and economic issues.

Putting a face on the issue, Mendez told of a migrant worker who has not returned home in about eight years. He sends money to his family and toys to his children.

"This man says, 'I would do anything for my children,'" Mendez said. "I could not bear to be apart from my family (for that long)."

Immigrants fill jobs ranging from high-skilled professions and academic fields to field workers and laborers, Mendez said.

"These (manual) workers do jobs that we would never dream of doing," she said. "What would happen if the immigrants were to suddenly stop coming or migrate dramatically?"

International students contributed $17.6 billion to the U.S. economy in one year, Mendez said. According to the most recent figures, international students and their dependents contributed a total of $2.17 million in one year at USD. The figure stood at $142,000 for Mount Marty College in Yankton.

In addition, Mendez noted that USD faculty includes professors from around the world, bringing a unique perspective.

Mendez fought back tears as she showed pictures of illegal immigrants who unsuccessfully tried to cross the U.S. border. In the last 10 years, 3,000 Mexicans have died crossing the border, Mendez said. She told of a family where the man went to Arizona, and his decomposed body was found eight days later.

Mendez noted that private citizens, particularly the Minutemen, patrol the border. According to the Web site www.minutemanHQ.com, the organization defines itself as "a national citizens neighborhood watch securing the American border."

The Minutemen's stated mission is "to secure United States borders and coastal boundaries against unlawful and unauthorized entry of all individuals, contraband and foreign military."

The lengthy absence of many Mexican men working in the U.S. has influenced their families back home, Mendez said. In Mexico, 25 percent of the families are run by women, she said. The figure climbs to 33 percent in Mexico City.

Immigration laws have tightened up greatly over time, O'Rourke said.

From 1900-20, more than 20 million immigrants entered the U.S. But from 1917-24, quotas were enforced for particular groups of immigrants. More regulations were enforced with the 1952 Immigration and Naturalization Act.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is nothing new, O'Rourke said. She pointed to the strict immigration laws at the turn of the 20th century. Specific actions targeted the Chinese and Catholics, particularly the Irish.

Currently, immigrants can enter the U.S. only through family-based or employment-based means, O'Rourke said.

"People ask: Why don't they immigrate legally? And why don't they get in the country like my ancestors?" she said. "Back then, (immigrants) were asked 29 questions, and all they had to do was show the required $30 and ticket before they could board the boat."

No formal immigration path exists in much of Latin America, O'Rourke said. "The truth is, if you are in Central and South America, there is no such office and no such line," she said.

O'Rourke called for comprehensive immigration reform.

"We need to address future workforce needs and the existing unauthorized work population," she said. "We need a workable employment eligibility verification system. And we need a screening process to ensure fair employment eligibility."

Americans are not being displaced by foreign workers, O'Rourke said. On the contrary, immigrants are helping the economy by offsetting fewer domestic workers and retiring baby boomers, she said.

A study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences showed the following, she said:

• The average immigrant annually contributes $1,800 more in taxes than he/she receives in benefits. Over their lifetimes, immigrants and their children will each pay an average $80,000 more in taxes than they will receive in local, state and federal benefits combined.

• Immigrants benefit the U.S. economy overall, and they may add as much as $10 billion to the U.S. economy each year. It is estimated that the total goods and services that all immigrants consume through their paychecks, plus all that they produce for their employers, is close to about $800 billion.

• Taxes paid by undocumented immigrants go into the SSA's "suspense file," when the Social Security number does not match SSA's records. In 2002, the suspense file grew by $56 billion in reported earnings, with about $7 billion in Social Security tax and $1.5 billion in Medicare tax paid.

This tax contribution represents about 10 percent of the current Social Security surplus –the difference between what is being collected in Social Security taxes and what is being paid out in benefits.

Immigration reform is needed for homeland security and the rule of law, O'Rourke said. The lack of federal action prompted passage of the Arizona law targeting illegal immigrants, she said.

"In Arizona, it's a thorny issue. They are trying to implement their own kind of immigration policy," she said. "What happens if Arizona's law spreads? You will have color 'swatch' justice."

Under such a law, authorities will target Hispanics while the blonde, blue-eyed illegal immigrant will not be stopped, O'Rourke said. "They are just as illegal, but they will stay under the radar screen," she said of the white citizens.

Not all illegal immigrants sneak or swim across the border, O'Rourke said. She told the story of a family who shipped their belongings to the United States, then drove across the border from Canada.

O'Rourke noted one of her conventions won't be held in Arizona because of a boycott of the new law. And Mendez said she hopes the atmosphere becomes peaceful on all sides rather than escalates into violence.

USD professor Jose Flores, who was in the audience, noted the Arizona law could easily affect the state's large population with Hispanic heritage.

Arizona legislators likely gave way to pressure from constituents in passing the new law, O'Rourke said.

"We have seen it before in our history, and it's what we are seeing in Arizona," she said. "These legislators have many constituents who have fear, stereotypes, misconceptions and hate. There is silence from others who are not motivated by fear and prejudice, but these legislators listen to the loud constituents."

Not all immigrants are Hispanic, Dai said. She noted the large number of Asian immigrants who have started businesses and become part of the American dream. These newcomers have become especially important in counteracting the loss of population in the Rust Belt of the Midwest and Northeast, she said.

"They have had outmigration (in these cities) for two decades," she said. "The immigrants move to abandoned cities and help local governments get more tax dollars."

The influx of immigrants has created fear and resentment among people who see the newcomers as undermining the American fabric, O'Rourke said. While many Americans resent seeing multi-lingual signs, she noted no official language exists in the United States.

"I tell the story of a young couple with a small child who emigrated to the United States," she said. "Because children learn much faster, here is a 5- or 6-year-old child who is doing the translation for the parents."

O'Rourke pointed out that her hometown area in northwest Iowa has benefited from immigrants from a variety of nations. "In Sioux County, they have a very thriving economy because of the immigrants. The schools would collapse without the immigrants," she said.

While the new Arizona law is closely watched, a Hispanic woman in the USD audience noted that racial profiling already exists for her son in Texas.

"My son is frequently stopped and has to carry his ID with him," the woman said. "He knows the language and has served in the U.S. Army. He has lived in the United States all of his life, but he has to prove he is a U.S. citizen because he looks different."

O'Rourke said she hopes racial profiling and documentation doesn't become part of everyday life in the United States.

"We don't have to carry an ID to prove who we are. We can just walk around," she said. "To see that change is a terrible thing."

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