Monday, May 29, 2006

Rules Collide With Reality in the Immigration Debate

by Julia Preston
The New York Times
May 29, 2006

Six years after he came here from Mexico, David E. has a steady job in a poultry plant, a tidy mobile home and a minivan. Some days he almost forgets that he does not have legal documents to be in this country.

David's precarious success reflects the longtime disconnect between the huge number of Mexican immigrants the American economy has absorbed and the much smaller number the immigration system has allowed to enter legally.

Like many Mexicans, David — who spoke in Spanish and whose last name is being withheld because he feared being fired or deported — was drawn by the near-certain prospect of work when he made his stealthy passage across the desert border in Arizona to this town among the cucumber fields of eastern North Carolina.

"If I had the resources and the connections to apply to come legally," said David, 37, "I wouldn't need to leave Mexico to work in this country."

In the foundering immigration system being debated in Congress, immigration from Mexico is a critically broken part and, researchers and analysts say, central to any meaningful fix.

By big margins, Mexican workers have been the dominant group coming to the United States over the last two decades, yet Washington has opened only limited legal channels for them, and has then repeatedly narrowed those channels.

"People ask: Why don't they come legally? Why don't they wait in line?" said Jeffrey S. Passel, a demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, a research organization in Washington. "For most Mexicans, there is no line to get in."

The United States offers 5,000 permanent visas worldwide each year for unskilled laborers. Last year, two of them went to Mexicans. In the same year, about 500,000 unskilled Mexican workers crossed the border illegally, researchers estimate, and most of them found jobs.

"We have a neighboring country with a population of 105 million that is our third-largest trading partner, and it has the same visa allocation as Botswana or Nepal," said Douglas S. Massey, a sociology professor at Princeton.

Several guest worker programs exist for Mexicans to come temporarily to the United States. But there is general agreement that those programs are inefficient, and employers often avoid them.

The 11.6 million people born in Mexico who now live in the United States account for one-third of all residents who were born overseas, census figures show. About six million of the Mexican immigrants are here illegally, more than half of all the illegal immigrants in the country, Professor Passel estimated.

For generations, starting with the Bracero program in the 1950's, Mexican men came to the United States to work for a few months each year before returning home to their families. But in the last 20 years, Mexicans "have settled in the United States; they have kids born here," said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego.

"Clearly there are some migrants who attempt to maintain an economic foothold in Mexico," Mr. Cornelius said. "But their main project is to build their lives in the United States."

And so communities of illegal Mexican immigrants have sprung up in places like Mount Olive, a town far from the border with a famous pickle factory and a population of 5,000. Grocery stores on country roadsides carry corn tortillas — authentic ones imported from Mexico. A Pentecostal church has services in Spanish only, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patroness, is a common image on key chains and mobile home walls.

In North Carolina, the immigrant population has nearly tripled since 1990, the biggest increase of any state in the nation, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan group in Washington. By far the biggest group of new immigrants in the state is illegal Mexicans.

Stephen P. Gennett, president of the Carolinas chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, which represents commercial builders, said Mexican immigrants filled an important gap in the labor market.

"We have a problem here: a people shortage," Mr. Gennett said. "In the 90's, we began to feel the stress of an inadequate work force," he said. "The Hispanics have been filling those jobs."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company


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