Immigration Attorneys Give the Status on Immigrants Without Legal Status

11/11/09 Caroline Cziesla
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Last year, during the presidential election, there was an issue discussed that was so heated – emotions were boiling. At the moment, the controversy has simmered down. But, the problem is still brewing.

The issue has to do with people like Rudy.

Rudy is living in the United States illegally. He came here for medical reasons; his daughter is blind. Twice, Rudy tried to obtain a visa from the American embassy. He was denied both times.

That was in 1995. Rudy and his family paid $2,000 for help to cross the border from Mexico to Texas. Although the medical treatment for his blind daughter didn’t change her circumstances, time passed and he created a life for himself here.

Today, Rudy’s home is in Hillsborough County. He has used seven different aliases by purchasing phony social security numbers. He lives in fear, but feels life under the radar is better than life in Mexico. Rudy says the Mexican economy is poor and their government is corrupt.

Last night, the League of Women Voters hosted an educational forum about immigration. The discussion was held at the headquarters of the St. Petersburg Times newspaper. The guest speakers were three immigration lawyers. It’s more complex than it is simple.

According to attorney John Dubrule, we need to change our attitudes towards what he called “undocumented immigrants.”

Dubrule has a bumper sticker on the back of his car that reads, “No Human is Illegal.” Dubrule said, “You don’t want to be calling people illegal. Once you call a person illegal you dehumanize them, making them something less than the rest of us. And people who come here who are undocumented or out of status are no less than the rest of us.”

Dubrule said that calling people “illegal” opens them to exploitation, ranging from human trafficking to being overworked and underpaid by employers.

Rudy, knows this well. He was fired from a restaurant job for refusing to clean up the restaurant’s kitchen without pay on his night off.

In addition to wanting an efficient and quick process for the legal entry of immigrants into the United States, the League supports provisions for the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the country to become legal residents. The League says, as long as the immigrant has no history of criminal activity, these individuals should have the right to earn legal status.

To some, it might seem like this idea is rewarding those who have broken the law. Yet, doing nothing does not correct the problem. One way to change the current system, says attorney Jennifer Roeper, is to create a process. Roeper suggested a system where immigrants pay their taxes and perhaps a fine for residing in the country illegally.

Efforts have been made since 9/11 to help fix the immigration issue. There has been enforcement of the I-9, which is a form where employees check a box stating that they are legally allowed to work in the United States. But, as a result, some employers are facing criminal penalties for hiring undocumented workers. The attorney’s argue that it’s not right to turn businesses into immigration detectives.

Attorney William Flynn says another negative change since 9/11 is that student visas are not as easy to obtain. He said this reduces opportunities for us to work and learn from people around the world.

There are also new laws for those wanting a driver’s license. Under the “Real ID” Act, all states are required to institute tougher regulations pertaining to who is allowed to get a permit. In order to drive, you need to provide proof of immigration status.

These new regulations have consequences for immigrants like Rudy. “I have to drive everyday with no license,” said Rudy. “And if the police catch me, they’ll take me to Mexico.”

The attorneys at last night’s panel challenged what they said were other misconceptions. For instance, a large number, perhaps almost half of the undocumented immigrants, entered the country legally. When their visa’s expired, they decided to stay.

Also, immigrants pay taxes that include income, social security, Medicare, and sales tax. Dubrule said tax payments always come up during a legalization interview. Immigrants file returns because the understanding is that reform will benefit those who did the right thing.

Karen Coale, co-chair of the Immigration Committee for the League, said that if people understood the real issues they might be more compassionate towards the problem. Coale said, “We are either immigrants ourselves or our ancestors were, so the issues that people are facing today - our parents and grandparents faced the same issues.”

At the very minimum, Coale would like to see a proactive strategy implemented. She would like more financial resources used to make a pathway for citizenship.

But for Rudy, he just wants to stay. Earning three dollars a day in Mexico is no life for him. Rudy is happy that his daughters were able to grow up here. He hopes to get his papers one day.

The identity of the immigrant interviewed is not his true name. He asked to be called Rudy to protect himself and his family.

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