Immigration Reform Would Help Economy, Says Labor Secretary
Hilda Solis joins town hall discussion at ELAC.
By Gloria Angelina Castillo, EGP Staff Writer
Undocumented immigrants are often painted as incompetent, criminals and thugs, but the demonizing of immigrants has a devastating effect on all Americans and needs to stop, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis told a crowd at East Los Angles College on May 27.
“We are living in a time of economic uncertainty. Too many Americans are out of work and that’s especially true for our community. Yet some Americans who once supported reform have changed their position because they think bringing immigrants out of the shadows will make it harder for them to find work,” said Solis, who previously represented the East Los Angeles area as a U.S. Representative.
Solis said getting people to understand that the country benefits economically from immigration and that comprehensive immigration reform is in the country’s best interest, is “challenging.”
Read this story IN SPANISH: Reforma Migratoria Ayudaría la Economía, Dice la Secretaria de Trabajo
Solis was one of the speakers taking part in “Conversation on Immigration Reform for the 21st Century,” a town hall style discussion held at ELAC. Her remarks come on the heels of the president’s speech in El Paso, Texas last month, where he said immigration reform is important to the U.S. economy.
The labor secretary was one of several elected officials in the Southland last week hitting key points of the president’s immigration message in hopes of quelling the perception among Hispanics, before the 2012 elections, that Obama has not lived up to his commitment to bring about comprehensive immigration reform.
Solis said it’s time for voters across the country to engage in a civil dialogue about the country’s inadequate immigration laws. The daughter of immigrants herself, Solis said the U.S. needs a federal immigration policy that applies to all 50 states.
She also reminded the audience that President Obama’s father was an immigrant.
Solis described the positive economic impact she says immigrants have had, and continue to have on the U.S., not only as laborers, but also as creators of wealth and technology and other innovations.
“For generations, immigrants have contributed vastly to the wealth and opportunity of this country. Today our immigrants are scientist and engineers. They create jobs as small business owners and entrepreneurs. They file three times as many patents—which are the foundation for 21st century innovation.
“Immigrants build roads, harvest crops and do work that is vital for our economic prosperity,” Solis said.
“Immigrant families boost local economies, they increase tax revenue and they pay into our social security system. And yes, immigrants are driven, they are smart and some of the best students we have to offer in this country, so we have to tell their stories,” Solis told the audience, made up mostly of college students, activists and members of the media.
Solis said support, or lack thereof, for an overhaul of our immigration laws in Washington D.C., is divided along party lines, with Republicans being particularly reluctant to address immigration reform.
“The president believes that we can fix this system and change hearts and minds, and hopefully lower the temperature so we stop the bad rhetoric…our talk today is about restoring dignity and respect to people who are working hard and playing by the rules…” she said, before going on to ask her fellow panelists their perspective on bring about immigration reform.
Rev. Fr. Richard Estrada of Our Lady Queen of Angeles Church, a self-described “advocate priest,” said everyday he hears first hand the struggles immigrants face.
“The immigration laws are doing nothing but making people suffer,” he said.
Estrada said religious leaders want to see compassionate immigration reforms because they believe all people are created in the likeness of god, and highly value dignity and respect.
Panelist Laphonza Butler is with the SEIU, a union that represents service industry employees. She said workers in America are under attack and passage of comprehensive immigration reform is really about defining the “soul” of the country.
Arizona’s controversial immigration law, SB1070; Wisconsin’s ban on collective bargaining for public workers; and the on-the-spot firings of Chipotle workers in Minnesota are all examples of how workers in this U.S. are being attacked, she said.
“The passage of immigration reform is really about defining the soul of our country because keeping families together, educating our next generation, being able to have a quality job, having the ability to go to a doctor…earning a living wage—those aren’t republican or democrat issues—those are issues of human dignity,” Butler said.
“If we are not talking about the basic way that people should be treated in the United States of America, then we are not having the right conversation.”
Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, said there is no greater threat to the civil rights of Latinos today than the violent and shrill rhetoric that demonizes Latino immigrants and undocumented immigrants as a whole.
“When that dangerous rhetoric is enacted into law in the form of Arizona’s SB 1070, or local cities’ restrictions on immigrant day laborers, or local officials implementing without any sanctions whatsoever their own approaches to immigration regulation…there is no greater threat to the civil rights of all of us,” Saenz said.
Saenz said adoption of state and local immigration laws are an assault on the American constitution. He pointed to programs like Secure Communities as an attack on communities and the nation as a whole.
“There is no greater guarantor of our continued thriving as a nation under constitutional values that we believe in, than to ensure that this nation follows more progressive immigration reform,” he said.
Kent Wang, of the UCLA Labor Center, talked about the center’s work to support immigrant workers and Dream Act students. He said Dream Act students are carrying on the social justice work of Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez and Dr Martin Luther King.
“It is shameful that we are not allowing them to fully participate, to use their gifts, their skills, their knowledge and allowing them to legally work in our society. These are the young people who can help us with our economic recovery… that is why we are calling on president Obama today to stop the deportation of Dream Act students,” Wong said, receiving a standing ovation from the audience.
Wong said incarcerating and deporting Dream Act students—brought to the U.S. illegally as children which makes them ineligible for college financial aid—is a “horrendous waste of federal resources.”
Saenz said we are wasting our investment in public education by denying high-achieving immigrants the right to work and contribute to the US economy.
Michael Czarcinki, general manager of Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites, said immigration laws are confusing to businesses and individuals. He said the citizenship process should be simplified.
“My grandfather was an immigrant, I think the welcome mat said ‘willkommen.’ Today there’s no ‘welcome’ on the welcome mat, there’s ‘maybe welcome’ or ‘I’m not too sure’—we need to get rid of the ‘maybe’ and ‘I’m not too sure’ and have comprehensive immigration reform now,” Czarcinski said.
As the son of teamster who was illiterate, Czarcinski said he is glad to be part of the immigration debate and support immigration reform.
Some people have forgotten that their grandparents were once immigrants, UFW Co-founder Dolores Huerta said. “We need to remind them, unless you’re Native American, you probably came from somewhere else and at some point your family was legalized.”
She noted that during the 1920’s there were more foreign born than native born people in the country.
Huerta said the US has taken on immigration and legalization many times in its history. She said bans on ethnic studies in places like Arizona, is keeping young immigrants and future generations from learning about their history and contributions.
The way to get the immigration reform conversation going again is to reach out to other communities, said Huerta.
She said we have to reach out to people in other states, where Latinos, despite their large numbers, are failing to vote, and get them involved in the push to change the immigration laws. “…Texas is 50 percent Latino and yet in the legislature they’re two-thirds republican and they’ve introduced 100 pieces of legislation against immigrants,” Huerta said.
People who don’t support Affirmative Action and say America should be a color blind society, without giving preferential treatment to one race or another, should know the current immigration system is blatantly racially discriminatory, Saenz said.
“Today, in 2011, we can have two potential immigrants, one from Europe, one from Mexico. The potential immigrant from Europe waits 4 years…the one from Mexico waits 18 years or longer to reunite with their family,” he said.
Speaking from the audience. Victor Fernandez questioned Solis about Obama’s deportation record.
“Why has Obama deported more people per year than Bush?” he asked.
Solis responded that immigration reform critics use the border-security as a driving force for their opposition, so Obama has had to increase security and enforcement measures.
“It hits both ways, but that argument is valid for those people who are not even where we are [on supporting immigration reform]. Secure the borders, do everything you can, you might think that is not relevant but it is… now we can move past that,” she said.Print This Post
June 2, 2011 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.