September 5, 2012

Political rhetoric about immigration, especially during presidential election season, makes it easy to accept myths and overlook realities that govern the lives of millions of unauthorized immigrants in the United States.

One line that routinely floats around holds that unauthorized immigrants are mired in poverty and are a disproportionate drain on public resources. Some numbers, however, show a clear contribution: U.S. employers in 2007 reported wages of $90 billion for millions of workers whose paychecks did not match real names and Social Security numbers. From that, $11.2 billion went to the Social Security Trust Fund and $2.6 billion went to Medicare. Yet unauthorized immigrants are not eligible for most public benefits; even legal immigrants are not eligible in the first five years after gaining legal residency.

The real issue—which our national political debates routinely ignore—is the nation's practice of keeping unauthorized immigrants firmly on the margins and in the shadows of society. While some businesses rely on unauthorized laborers to pick food, clean hotel rooms, and take care of grandma cheaply, there seems to be a simultaneous push in states like Arizona and Alabama to see the unauthorized be identified or leave voluntarily. Naturally, the unauthorized fear discovery and thus tend to avoid anyone with a uniform.

This is not just hypocritical, it's unhealthy for society. Immigrants' fear of interaction with authority can impede effective law enforcement and leaves them vulnerable to abuses of their basic human rights.

Numerous reports from Human Rights Watch in recent years have shown that immigrants suffer from targeted police attention; that “mixed-status” families with U.S. citizens and unauthorized immigrants are often ripped apart; and that due process in the legal system seems to go off the rails when it comes to immigrants.

Look at farmworkers, an indispensable workforce in the U.S.:

Many farmworkers are already vulnerable to low wages and poverty and work under laws that treat them differently from workers in almost any other US industry. Weaker laws, for example, govern child labor and minimum wage and overtime for farm work. The Southern Poverty Law Center has found that, from 2004 to 2006, the average personal yearly income for women farmworkers was $11,250. For men it was $16,250.

But in the case of unauthorized immigrant farmworkers, the risk of abuse is even greater. Only 39 percent are eligible for unemployment insurance—even though many of their employers pay into the system. Fewer than half of unauthorized workers can claim compensation if they're injured on the job. And 21 percent of farmworkers live in housing supplied by employers.

Unauthorized farmworkers are also less likely to report abuse. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch documented that women and girls doing agricultural work face a significant risk of sexual violence and harassment. They rarely report abuse, not only because they fear retaliation, but also because they fear local law enforcement will be more interested in deporting them than in investigating crimes.

Is it really in the United States' interest to have policies generating such a level of fear among unauthorized immigrants that sexual violence or other abuses go unreported?

The United States government is entitled to regulate immigration. But it must do so in a fair manner that respects internationally recognized human rights standards—values the U.S. claims to promote and respect.

If the U.S. is to meet those standards, it must come up with a comprehensive reform of immigration laws. The longer it delays a fix for the immigration system, the more the U.S. fosters abuse of a select group of people and, in turn, helps carve more dangerous divisions between communities.

The U.S. government has long said that borders must be secure before it can address the reality of so many unauthorized immigrants living in this country. Today, with zero real growth in migration from Mexico and a massive fortification of the southern border with personnel and technology, one can reasonably ask: how can this country continue to kick the immigration-reform can down the road?

While politicians select their horses for the presidential race at these conventions, someone needs to remind them that millions of Americans are quite ready to discuss immigration reform that would pull a large group of people, aching to be productive and constructive members of society, out from the shadows.

Ricardo Sandoval-Palos is a researcher in the US Program at Human Rights Watch. A longtime journalist, he has written extensively about Latin America and the US-Mexico border.