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Borderland – Undocumented Migrants In The United States

Eleven million people live as undocumented migrants in the United States, constantly afraid of deportation. By working off the books and off-hours, they allow the middle class to maintain their American way of life.

Until the 19th century, the United States accepted European refugees and economic migrants with open arms, the Statue of Liberty symbolically inviting the “tired, […] poor, […] huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But since the late 19th century, immigration to the U.S. has become increasingly tied to economic interests rather than humanitarian values. The line between desired and undesired migrants has shifted throughout history according to prejudices and economic needs, excluding Chinese (1882), homosexuals (1917), Japanese (1907), Mexicans (1929), and so forth.

“Whenever restrictions are severe, you automatically get undocumented immigration,” sociologist Nancy Foner said. According to the Pew Research Center, among the 1.5 million immigrants who come to the U.S. every year, one in four lacks a valid visa or green card. Hence an estimated 11 million people live in the U.S. as undocumented migrants, the same number as in the European Union. Their situation heavily depends on laws and enforcement practices that change over time and vary in different EU countries and U.S. states.

“Documented migrants integrate more easily in the U.S.,” Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan of the Migration Policy Institute said. In her work for the Transatlantic Council on Migration, she provides guidance to countries holding the rotating EU presidency. “The EU has a long history with guest workers. The fact that these were understood to be temporary workers who would eventually return was and still is a real impediment to integration.”

Sociologist Nancy Foner confirms this difference: “Since the U.S. went through the civil rights movement, it is generous in extending a national identity to immigrants and their children. You simply become a hyphenated American: an ABC (American-born Chinese), a Black or Hispanic American. In contrast, immigrants and their children in Europe are not seen as fully German, French, or Dutch. You can be the grandchild of a non-Western immigrant and still be thought of as a foreigner.” In Germany, you are indeed said to have a “background of migration” (“Migrationshintergrund”) if one of your parents immigrated since 1949.

“Restricting dual citizenship like in some parts of Europe sends a negative message that you have to choose to be one or the other,” Foner added. “If you allow expressions of difference like in the U.S., you find that immigrants have more of an incentive to integrate into national fabric.”

However, some argue that this tolerance ends when the U.S. deals with its undocumented migrants. While 10 percent of them either have a temporary protected status (TPS) because they come from designated unsafe countries or have been granted a quasi-legal status with the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program for migrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors, the remaining 90 percent live in the shadows. They are “physically present, but legally absent,” as sociologist Cecilia Menjívar described it. They come to the U.S. to work off the books and off-hours, but are not eligible for social welfare programs to make up for their low income, nor are they covered by public health insurance. In states like Arizona they face the threat of being deported and separated from their families on a daily basis.

The European Union has regularized 5 million undocumented migrants in 1995. However, the current refugee crisis is taking a toll on the attitude toward undocumented migrants, as some did not flee persecution and war but “only” economic hardship. In the public perception, the undocumented migrant competes with refugees and the priority even of NGOs shifts away from the former. Germany has just identified a number of presumably “secure” countries in the Balkans whose citizens may no longer apply for asylum or migrate to Germany. If they do, they become undocumented.

“They should wait in line like all the others do,” said legal policy analyst Jon Feere of the conservative D.C. think tank Center for Immigration Studies (CIS).

However, in its last immigration reform 50 years ago (the Hart-Celler Act of 1965), the U.S. decided to grant all countries in the world the same number of visas (with some exceptions). As Mexico and the Philippines for geographical and historical reasons have by far the highest demand, ordinary workers from these countries stand very little chance to migrate legally – unless they win the green-card lottery. Or, as immigration lawyer Dagmar Butte from Portland put it: “If they are unfortunate enough to be Mexican or Filipino, they will probably be dead before they get to the front of the queue.”

Yet undocumented migrants are an extremely diverse group, as Butte emphasized: “You would be stunned how many Western Europeans are in the 11 million. In my practice I have everything from business owners with many employees, Ph.D. students who overstayed their visa, to Mexicans who swam across the Rio Grande into Texas.”

“In working dirty, dangerous, and difficult jobs, unauthorized workers have taken over the role that Native Americans are no longer willing to fill,” said Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan of the Migration Policy Institute, countering the argument that “migrants take away U.S. jobs.” A visit to California’s agricultural capital Salinas confirmed this.

“Our farmers are in desperate need of workers,” said City Councilman Steve McShane, a 2009 McCloy Fellow in Agriculture. “Barely any [U.S.] American is willing to do the hard job in the fields.”

In his studies on farm worker life in California for the Department of Labor and Commission on Agricultural Workers, the Oakland-based philosopher Ed Kissam found that two-thirds of all Californian migrant workers in agriculture are undocumented. While it is illegal to hire them, enforcement is weak.

According to Kissam’s study, workers earn an average $11,000 a year, from which many still remit to their families in their home country.

“Some move back to Mexico because they cannot stand it any longer,” Salinas City Councilman Tony Barrera said. “But most find the conditions here still more bearable than in Mexico – at least financially: In the U.S., they make more money in an hour ($8-15) than they can earn in Mexico in a day, with prices being similar, except for the rent.”

For sociologist Nancy Foner, undocumented workers allow the middle class to maintain their American way of life: “They can find people who are willing to mow their lawns, to look after their children, cook for them, and renovate buildings for a fraction of what the middle class earns.”

This is symptomatic of the double approach toward undocumented people many Americans have adopted. We had all best keep in mind that we would not eat vegetables without the workers who got unpopular jobs on California farms – instead of U.S. visas.

A 2014/15 McCloy Fellow in Journalism, Christina Felschen has investigated the situation of undocumented migrants in Arizona and California, covering the history, border crossing, work, effects on children and students, deportation, and the U.S. refugee crisis. During her fellowship, she met with lawyers, politicians, NGO activists, a sheriff, law enforcement agents, interest groups, and undocumented people in Washington, D.C., National Harbor, New York City, Tucson, Phoenix, Salinas, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Heroica Nogales, Mexico.