Hartstein: Action needed on immigration
I have always thought of our nation as a welcoming place and melting pot of diversity -- many of us have ancestors who immigrated to America to find a better life.
I think those of us who have seen the Statue of Liberty have been inspired by its beacon in The New York harbor across from Ellis Island, knowing the some of our family members may have had the opportunity to actually have been welcomed there. They may have heard those words of Emma Lazarus inscribed on the base: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
Who could have imagined that, when President Biden submitted a comprehensive proposal to address our current immigration situation, a polarized Senate, a wall of Republicans and an imminent filibuster, ala Emily Litella, were likely ready to yell "Never Mind."
Something is clearly wrong with this picture. Immigrants are an important part of our nation and comprise about 14 percent of the US population -- more than 44 million of our about 327 million-person population, according to Census bureau.
In a 2019 Gallup poll, 76% of Americans considered immigration a good thing.
We have nearly 11,000 undocumented immigrants, of whom more than half have lived in the US for longer than a decade. They came here for their families, many of them doing jobs as essential workers that have kept us going, and many others doing jobs that others would not consider doing. We have the Dreamers, who were brought here as kids and who have not ever known another home than our country. There are around 1 million of them who have gone to school with our kids and have become engaged in many facets of our workforce with the hope that some day they might become citizens and not have to keep looking over their shoulders worrying that they might be sent back to another country to which they really had no connection. There are people who have come to college here and whose desire to stay and make contributions in fields where companies around the country truly need them to be able to grow and prosper. There are people who come here to work in agriculture so that farmers and food processors can meet the needs of all Americans. There are companies that want to bring people in who have expertise that are needed. There are people and kids who want to come in due to unsafe conditions in their countries and who desire asylum.
There are a multitude of issues surrounding immigration, and many questions that must be resolved. Our own Sen. Durbin, who has been a longtime advocate for immigration reform recently acknowledged that that chances of getting comprehensive reform does not seem ripe with the filibuster rule in place. Though I think President Biden's Comprehensive approach is needed, I would hope that rather than kicking all the cans down the road, that we should begin to tackle as much as possible. That means we should focus on some critical issues where progress can be made.
The problem on the border with a large influx of underage kids seeking refuge has to be the first priority. The president has recognized this and asked FEMA to step in to ensure that safe and acceptable quarters are provided as soon as possible and that these kids are placed with responsible families, or their own parents if possible, while their cases are processed. We must ensure that these kids are not turned over to anyone who might exploit them. We also must ensure that, in light of COVID-19, all health precautions are taken. We also need to address the source of the problems that have led to the influx, and that means trying to get some economic assistance to the Central American nations where living conditions have sent many to our southern border. Proper staffing and facilities however need to be made available based on the numbers on the ground. This is a complex situation, but humanitarian concerns dictate that we as a nation commit to deal with it compassionately.
The DACA situation has been kicked down the road too long, and it is time to get these young people -- who were thrown into a situation as kids, without a voice in the matter.
It should be noted that nearly half of the roughly 1 million DACA-eligible immigrants are essential workers with about 62,000 of them being essential health care workers. The fact the DACA-eligible immigrants contribute close to $6 billion in taxes annually should also be noted. There is a strong case to be made for a prompt path to citizenship for these Dreamers.
During COVID, undocumented immigrants have kept the country safe on the front lines as essential workers. Hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers have been left out of the COVID relief packages due to their immigration status. Nearly 300,000 undocumented immigrants have been working in the health care sector alone. About 7% of all home health care aides are undocumented and over 8% in the food service industry are undocumented. Considering they are putting themselves on the front lines during COVID, Congress should likewise put undocumented essential workers on a path to citizenship. They should not have been left out of COVID relief.
Agriculture Employers have faced acute labor shortages. More than 36% of all agriculture workers are undocumented. Labor shortages in agriculture have cost the US in nonfarm sectors. Farmworkers on visas lack flexibility to change employers and have no path to stay permanently. The Visa system needs to provide for flexibility and to insure a stable workforce, and it would appear to make sense to put those undocumented workers in agriculture on a path to citizenship.
The support for giving a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants does have public support. A recent Gallup poll found 81 percent supported a path to citizenship if they meet certain conditions. If Congress could focus on a few areas as suggested above, we could begin to make progress for many of these undocumented immigrants who are making contributions to our country. Lets urge Congress to make some progress on this challenging issue and try to find some common ground on which to move forward. Hopefully, if we got the ball rolling, we could continue to work toward a more comprehensive immigration plan. We also must commit to doing as much as we can for Refugees from different parts of the world. During the last Administration, we reached a record low for helping refugees due to a cap of around 18,000 compared to 110,000 which it had been. President Biden has tried to help on the refugee front to increasing the cap to 125,000 for this year. Much work remains to be done on these fronts. Let us all try to work toward creating a brighter, more welcoming beacon on our Statue of Liberty.
• Elliott Hartstein is an attorney and a former Buffalo Grove village president.