Blog: Revisiting amnesty—will we care or cave?

Pam Linn

As Congress returns from yet another recess, they’re set to take up the issue of immigration. Long overdue, comprehensive reform could bring approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants out from the shadows and into the mainstream.

There will be contentious debate and, yes, partisan politics will drive much of it. President Obama made a significant start with the Dream Act, which protected those who were brought here as children by parents and have lived most of their lives under threat of deportation. Most of them speak English, have been through our school system and are poised to pursue higher education, careers or seek employment in a trade.

Their parents, however, are faced with a dilemma: The immigration system is antiquated, skewed in favor of those from countries other than Mexico and Central America. It is also overburdened and underfunded.

Of the undocumented immigrants, some entered the country illegally, with or without the help of “coyotes,” smugglers who demand payment upfront and have been known to dump their charges in the desert when chased by the Border Patrol. Some obtained visas to attend school and simply went underground when their visas expired. The INS has been overwhelmed in its mission to find these people, so many have remained for decades.

Faced with a population of about three million undocumented immigrants in the mid-1980s, then-President Reagan passed the Immigration and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). Known to Latin American immigrants as la amnestia, the law made those who were living here before 1982 or who worked seasonally in agriculture eligible for legal status. IRCA also contained sanctions for employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers. In practice, however, the INS deported more workers than it fined employers.

Since IRCA, though, there has been little movement, while the number of estimated undocumented workers continued to rise (today it is estimated at approximately 11 million). Facing long inaction by the federal government, some states have tried to solve the problem on their own. But without a properly functioning workers program, when immigrants were deported or fled, crops rotted on vines and trees. American workers were no match for the brutal conditions in fields, orchards and packing sheds. Some accepted jobs, only to quit within a day, unaccustomed to stoop labor in the blazing sun.

Congress is expected to take up the issue of reform this week, but partisan rancor could derail the project. Those who are opposed to any amnesty will push for longer waiting times (10 to 15 years), fines and payment of back taxes. Ten years seems a long time to wait for the right to work. Many of these workers have been hired with forged papers and false Social Security numbers, so their taxes were withheld even though no benefits would ever accrue. To be fair, they don’t owe us anything; we owe them.

For many years, my family lived on a ranch, training and showing horses. Hiring reliable help was always difficult. Occasionally, a young American who wanted to learn the business would work for room and board and travel expenses.For steady work, we were forced to hire undocumented immigrants. They were wonderful help, grateful to live in a beautiful place, willing to do the most difficult jobs. They watched no clock, took no days off and sent much of their salary to their families in Mexico. Each winter, they would take two or three weeks off and return to plant crops on their Mexican farms. They made a harrowing journey to re-enter the country but always made it back in time for our busy season.

When my twins were born, I needed help and began hiring au pairs from a Los Angeles agency. Each lasted about a year. Hilda, a Bolivian schoolteacher, had escaped an abusive marriage and left her children with her mother. Eventually they obtained visas with help from relatives. I wondered if they ever benefited from Reagan’s amnesty.

It’s been my experience that immigrants don’t come here to game the system, as some believe. Fewer nationalized immigrants take advantage of Medicaid and other services than low-income, native-born Americans. If a path to citizenship is anathema to legislators, some form of legal residence might allow immigrants to function in society.

Our economy has traditionally benefited from immigration and would again if college students could stay, start companies and hire workers. Instead, we give graduates diplomas then kick them out. This makes no sense.

Whatever reform passes, I hope it’s adequately funded and not punitive toward those who entered illegally or overstayed their visas. Something more compassionate, even welcoming, would be more in keeping with who we think we are.