Apr. 18, 2006 – In the current debate over creating a new path to "legalization" for undocumented immigrants, the notion of "earned citizenship" â€“ as promoted mostly by liberal and centrist politicians â€“ has emerged as the pragmatic way forward.
It appears widely accepted that undocumented immigrants owe something for entering the country illegally, and that the debate on Capitol Hill is around only whether they should be allowed to make restitution.
On the conservative side, politicians and anti-immigration activists argue that anyone in the country illegally should be kicked out immediately, if not charged as a criminal. Meanwhile, liberals say that paying hefty fines and any back taxes should be enough to place some undocumented immigrants on the waiting list for a green card that could eventually lead to citizenship.
But some immigrants-rights groups are challenging the idea that undocumented workers owe a debt to US society and that they should be required to pay to obtain legal status.
"It makes it seem that people are hereâ€¦ to take jobs or benefits or services that they havenâ€™t either paid for or have a right to," said Arnoldo GarcÃa, program coordinator with the California-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
"We are not stealing work from any American here," said Marco, an undocumented immigrant whose last name is not disclosed in order to protect him from repercussions. "Through these jobs, we are holding up the country."
Many of those undocumented immigrants who have had income taxes deducted from their paychecks all along will be forced to pay these taxes for a second time
Employers regularly withhold taxes from the paychecks of workers using forged documents to obtain work. But most undocumented immigrants do not file tax returns, so they do not claim refunds they might otherwise be eligible for.
"How much of our money has the government kept from all of us who donâ€™t declare taxes?" asked an undocumented immigrant named Neftali, whose last name TNS is protecting. "I am paying, and they are not giving me change because I donâ€™t declare taxes."
Last month, Patrick P. O'Carroll Jr., inspector general of the Social Security Administration, told the US Senate Committee on Finance that his agency has accumulated about $520 billion that it cannot match to beneficiaries. He said his office believes a large portion of those funds are from undocumented immigrants using fraudulent Social Security numbers.
Studies claiming to assess the net public costs or benefits of illegal immigration have reached widely disparate conclusions depending on methodology and base data used. Most subtract tax revenues from the estimated cost of the social services they consume, like public healthcare but do not take into account how low-wage immigrant labor keeps prices low and boosts employer profits.
Most researchers do agree, however, that undocumented immigrants have access to and consume far fewer services than low-income citizens.
Nothing in the Senateâ€™s proposal would mandate that undocumented immigrants receive compensation for back wages.
"Whatever we have is because of the work that we have done and not because the government is giving us anything," Neftali commented.
Lucas BenÃtez, co-director of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, which represents Latino agricultural laborers, said undocumented immigrants generally avoid contact with state or federal agencies. "If you ask someone here who doesnâ€™t have his documents how many times he has gone to ask for some kind of help from the government, the answer is never," Benitez said. "We always pay for everything, and we never really ask for anything."
Yet under the new immigration proposal in the Senate, many of those undocumented immigrants who have had income taxes deducted from their paychecks all along will be forced to pay these taxes for a second time if they wish to obtain a green card.
As GarcÃa explained, the government has the ability to track the accounts of those people with false Social Security numbers and credit them the amount of taxes that they have already paid. However, undocumented immigrants will instead have to dig up more money to pay their taxes because they are working without valid Social Security numbers.
"Itâ€™s almost like creating a double jeopardy, but a new kind," commented GarcÃa. "People are going to have to pay twice for the â€˜crimeâ€™ of being undocumented in the country."
In addition to being held responsible for taxes, undocumented immigrants may also be required to pay $2,000 in fines to qualify for a green card under the Senate Judiciary Committeeâ€™s proposal.
Some immigrants and their advocates do not object to a fine, but believe $2,000 is too high a price.
"Two thousand dollars is quite a lot of money for someone whose only crime was to cross a line, a border," Benitez said. "He hasnâ€™t killed anybody, he hasnâ€™t kidnapped anybody. His only crime is to want to look for a better life for himself and his family and to expand the economy of the United States."
BenÃtez added that for a typical farm worker earning minimum wage, $2,000 could equal almost a quarter of a yearâ€™s salary.
And then there are undocumented immigrants who actually earn less than the minimum wage.
Though statistics are hard to come by, a 2002 study based on surveys of 636 undocumented workers in Chicago found that 10 percent of respondents reported being paid less than the federal minimum wage. The survey was conducted by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Yet, despite evidence that some businesses fail to provide workers with the bare minimum guaranteed by law, nothing in the Senateâ€™s proposal would mandate that undocumented immigrants receive compensation for back wages.
"Independent of â€˜amnestyâ€™ or â€˜legalizationâ€™ or whatever you want to call it, these companies are violating the law, and they need to pay back everything that they have robbed from those people," BenÃtez said.
However, it is the undocumented workers who find themselves criminalized and penalized by the very country that some critics argue forced them out of their homelands to begin with.
GarcÃa said the proposed legislation ignores what motivates people to migrate. "Very few people want to leave their homelands for the type of instability and insecurity that they face in this country," he said, but many are forced to migrate due to economic impact of trade pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
According to the watchdog group Public Citizen, NAFTAâ€™s lowering of agricultural trade barriers enabled multinational agribusinesses to undercut Mexican subsistence agriculture, leading to the displacement of approximately 1.5 million peasant farmers.
BenÃtez said he considers himself "a son of the free-trade agreement between Mexico, the United States and Canada." His family farmed their own land for generations, he said, but his father was displaced under NAFTA "because he was a small farmer who couldnâ€™t compete with the transnational companies that crossed the border [into Mexico]."
Comprehensive immigration reform, BenÃtez continued, "should be part of a package. We have to also think about how we are going to attack the problem of poverty in Mexico, Guatemala â€“ the poor countries from where these immigrants come."
Marco, the undocumented worker, said: "I would like the government here to look deeply and humanely at the situationâ€¦ to look at it with a conscience and with love towards humanity. Deep down, I donâ€™t consider it a crime to be working here illegally."