In a City of Immigrants, Support for a Middle Path for the Undocumented

Cynthia Otero With Her Son Christian at New York Immigration Reform Rally - Photo: Cristina DC Pastor

Cynthia Otero With Her Son Christian at New York Immigration Reform Rally. (Photo: Cristina DC Pastor)

NEW YORK – In his July 1 speech on immigration, President Obama gave a broad hint of an immigration reform law that would provide a path to legal status for nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants. He declared that immigrants who crossed the U.S. border without papers would not get blanket amnesty, even if “compassion drives this argument,” nor would they be deported en masse, because that would be “logistically impossible and wildly expensive.” Polls show the majority of Americans support changes in immigration policy, but there is no consensus on how do it.

Feet in Two Worlds spoke to a variety of New Yorkers about their views on immigration and their ideas for possible solutions. What emerged in this city of immigrants is a centrist position that echoed the values of fairness, accountability, common sense and the rule of law.

Lower East Side resident Cathy Barna said she would like to see undocumented immigrants come out of hiding, apply for legalization, pay taxes and learn English.

“My brother married a Mexican woman who runs a taco van and is making a nice living doing that. She works very hard. The couple in my neighborhood, the cleaning woman who stocks shelves in the store, they’re all nice people. They came here, work hard so they can have a good life,” said Barna, a manager at a chiropractor’s office. “But we have rules for a reason.”

Barna, whose husband is of Ukrainian descent, said his family and grandparents all learned to speak English.  “That’s what needs to be done.”

She is not in favor of the government fining immigrants, saying it would be an added burden to them.

An NYPD officer from Brooklyn said the government should take stock of which immigrants the country needs most and make that the basis for documentation. For example, he would like to see day workers on the priority list.

“Let’s document them, get them apprenticeships as electricians or plumbers, and get them into the unions,” said the officer who declined to give his name. “A lot of them are so skilled, they just don’t have the resources to get training and licensing.” He disagreed with observations that communities with day workers clustered outside Home Depot become a hotbed of crime. “A lot of them are really good people,” he said. The officer said he is not opposed to the government offering amnesty to day laborers and teachers because these are skills the country badly needs.

He was also a strong proponent of border security, because of drug smuggling.

Everyone should be documented and everyone should pay taxes, suggested New School student Kia Lee.

Her idea of legalization involved a probation period during which applicants are screened for possible violation of the law.

“Those that passed on good behavior should be allowed to continue to keep the jobs, family and property that they have accumulated while being here illegally. They have to start the correct paperwork to become citizens the legal way,” said the Astoria, Queens resident.

There has to be accountability, stressed Swedish-born environmentalist and educator Erik Mortensen. He thinks that immigrants must pay fines and learn English as part of the pathway to legal status.

Immigration reform is a universal problem,” said Mortensen, a UN consultant. All parties should aspire to reach agreement first on issues that are easily “solvable and reachable.” He says one of these is for immigrants to learn the language and be culturally functional “as quickly as possible.”

The law, to be truly comprehensive, should apply to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) families as well, said Tom Tierney of the grassroots advocacy group Out 4 Immigration. He said there are about 36,000 bi-national LGBT families marginalized by current immigration laws. In bi-national relationships, one partner is in the U.S. and the other is in the country of origin because of deportation or awaiting a visa.

“Right now, if you’re a gay or lesbian couple, and you have a marriage license in Connecticut, Vermont or Massachusetts, that license is not federally recognized,” Tierney explained. That means same-sex couples who are married are currently not allowed by law to sponsor their spouses for citizenship. The proposed Uniting American Families Act — sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D – NY) — seeks to change that. The bill was prompted by the case of lesbian couple Shirley Tan and Jay Mercado, a Filipino-American. Tan,  from the Philippines, was threatened with deportation for overstaying a visa. They have two sons.

“I’m in favor of [immigrants] coming forward, learning English, getting back at the end of the line,” Tierney said. But he would like LGBT couples to have the same legalization opportunities as heterosexual couples. “We’re not asking for special treatment.”

Taxi driver Victor Salazar told FI2W he is in favor of granting blanket amnesty for all undocumented immigrants, but the Ecuadoran immigrant said his views do not reflect the prevailing sentiment in Hispanic communities.  He argued his objections to Obama’s general plan: making English mandatory would promote “individualism,” border patrols create divisions rather than unite people, and imposing fines would penalize immigrants.

Drugs and immigration, stressed this leader of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, are two separate issues and should be dealt with separately.

“Drug smuggling cannot be solved by making walls,” he said.

New York City is a place where nearly 40 per cent of the population is foreign born, so sympathy for immigrants not surprising. Even Mayor Bloomberg is lobbying for immigration reform with a new coalition of political and business leaders, “Partnership for a New American Economy.” The mayor says that immigrants are crucial for the country’s economic growth, and are hard working people who turn the wheels of the city.

AboutCristina DC Pastor
Cristina DC Pastor, a former Fi2W Business and Economics Reporting fellow, is the publisher and editor of The FilAm ( Her book, “Scratch the News: Filipino Americans in Our Midst” (Inkwater, 2005), is a celebration of ordinary citizens at the center of extraordinary stories. She is a graduate of The New School.