Undocumented immigration issues call for more than building a wall


An application for permanent residence in the United States.  [photo by Jessica Johnson]

As undocumented immigration has emerged on the docket as a pressing issue throughout the presidential primaries, flaws with the process have become evident, such as shady, under-the-table payments to undocumented workers, terrifying, middle-of-the-night raids by the Department of Homeland Security, and negative rhetoric that has shaped public opinion about immigrants, according to Dr. Margaret Thompson of the University of Denver.

As of 2014, it was estimated that there were 11.4 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States, according to a report by the Pew Research Center.  They also estimated that undocumented immigrants amounted to about 5.1 percent of the U.S. workforce.    

Undocumented immigrant involvement in the workforce can have several impacts, including workers neglecting to pay taxes, according to University of Denver student, Tyler Mobley.

“I firsthand have seen some under-the-table working and payment, and it kind of messes with the finances of a company and is like a going behind Uncle Sam kind of a thing,” said Mobley.  “I worked for a company that actually hired a couple of illegal immigrants, and they actually ended up getting paid more than me, who had been working for a couple of years, just because they didn’t have to pay taxes, and they got paid cash in hand.”

Though some undocumented immigrants take advantage of limited government awareness of their presence in the U.S. and evade paying taxes, a report done by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimated that undocumented immigrants contribute approximately $11.64 billion in taxes to the government each year.  On a nationwide scale, undocumented immigrants pay an average of 8 percent of their income to state and local taxes, compared to the top one percent taxpayers in the U.S. who only pay 5.4 percent, according to the ITEP.

Undocumented immigrants who are a part of the U.S. workforce also face many risks because of the secretive nature of their employment, which can lead to exploitation by their employers, according to Thompson, an international journalist, immigrant rights activist, and women’s rights activist with Escribana.

“People have to get jobs that don’t pay much, and often, they’re treated horribly, but they feel afraid to speak up, or they’ll get fired,” said Thompson.

In fact, undocumented immigrants are often denied many rights in the workplace, such as the right to receive a promised wage, the right to safe working conditions, the right to receive compensation for injuries, and the right to not be discriminated against, according to Workplace Fairness.

However, according to federal law, the rights of all workers, even those of undocumented immigrants, are protected under laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act, according to a report by Texas Law Help.  Issues arise when workers are unaware of those rights, according to Workplace Fairness.

“There is a tremendous need to inform workers and employers of their rights and responsibilities under our employment laws, to provide greater resources for enforcement of such laws, to increase access for workers to the legal system and community organizing, and to adopt immigration policy reforms that will remove the vulnerability of undocumented workers,” said the Workplace Fairness report.

According to Amnesty International, workplace rights aren’t the only rights of undocumented immigrants being violated, but their basic human rights are being violated as well.

According to an Amnesty International report, US immigration authorities detain over 300,000 men, women and children annually, including, “asylum seekers, torture survivors, victims of human trafficking, longtime lawful permanent residents, and the parents of US citizen children. The use of detention as a tool to combat unauthorized migration falls short of international human rights law, which contains a clear presumption against detention. Everyone has the right to liberty, freedom of movement, and the right not to be arbitrarily detained.”

“The [Department of] Homeland Security is raiding homes and deporting people, even though President Obama had promised it would only be so-called criminals and many of them aren’t,” said Thompson.

University of Denver student, John Serralta, whose family emigrated from Cuba in 1980, said that he doesn’t agree with tracking down undocumented immigrants and deporting them, especially when many of them, like his family, come to the U.S. to escape oppressive conditions.

“[My family] lived there before the revolution, and then after that, it became a really bad situation,” said Serralta.  “Everything was taken from them, and they were living in abject poverty, so they just wanted a better life free from political prosecution and government theft.”

According to removal data by the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, undocumented immigrants who are the first priority to be deported are those suspected of felonies or terrorism or who pose a threat to national security.  However, according to an article by CNN, only 177,960 of the 235,413 people deported last year were convicted criminals.

Though many undocumented immigrants are referred to as “illegals,” not possessing registration documentation is actually only a misdemeanor, according to a report done by NAFSA.

However, the popularity of slurs such as “illegals” and “aliens” have caused the public to view undocumented immigrants in a more negative light, according to Thompson.

“You have somebody like [Donald] Trump who’s inflaming the rhetoric, and calling people criminals and rapists, and all of that, and I think it has a terrible effect on the public’s attitudes, but also the people themselves and the kids,” said Thompson.  “If you’re a kid that was born here and your parents are being called illegal aliens, or you are, what does that do to those kids? What does it do to the people here?  They don’t deserve that.”

University of Denver student, Ashley Dillon, whose mother emigrated to the United States from England when she was 10 years old, said, “I feel like ‘alien’ can be seen in such different ways. It just makes them all sound like criminals and a lot of them are really good people.”

A report by the American Immigration Law Foundation found that, crime rates are actually much lower among immigrants.  Their 2007 study found that the incarceration rate for native-born American males ages 18-39 was five times higher than the 0.7 percent incarceration rate for their foreign-born counterparts.

Despite this, derogatory names such as “illegal aliens” have perpetuated the perception that undocumented immigrants are criminals, according to Thompson.

“You’re just dehumanizing the person, and not actually giving them their rights,” said one Mexican immigrant, who wished to remain nameless.  “It’s an identity you give them so you make them feel less worthy.”

“I think people are changing, but I think a lot of people really don’t care about politics, so any of this kind of stuff can sway them. And if they don’t know immigrants, even though they probably have them all over but they don’t realize, then this rhetoric does make a difference,” said Thompson. “I feel like no matter what your opinion is on immigration, the cruelty that I’ve seen against these families is just horrible.”




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