Aliens among us

October 15, 2010
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I’ve got a secret. We have an illegal alien in our family. She lives outside of Massachusetts—that’s all I’ll say. She is my cousin’s mother-in-law. Call her Mary. My cousin’s wife was born outside the U.S. but is now an American citizen. Mary came legally to visit her daughter. She stayed.

My cousin’s wife left my cousin for another man. But Mary stayed on with my cousin and took care of his children when he was at work.

More things happened, but they aren’t relevant. The important thing is that Mary is still at her undisclosed location, taking care of the children who are now in their late teens.

Now some people might get all outraged. But in our bland, boring, Midwestern family who are now scattered all over America, all we could say when we learned about Mary was—cool.

It’s not just my family. I don’t hear fellow downtown Bostonians express anxiety, fear or hostility toward illegal immigrants either. We’ve seen the meanness play out in Arizona, where lawns go unmowed and hedges grow wild since those who take care of such things have hunkered down. We’ve seen it surface in our home-grown demagogues. Scott Brown scowls about offering citizenship to foreign-born youths whose parents brought them to America as children, have lived here at least five years, and have no criminal record. Recent proposed legislation would have given these kids a path to citizenship if they graduated from high school and completed two years in the military or in college. They sound like our kind of people, so what’s the problem?

Jim McKenna, the Republican candidate for attorney general, is also demogoguing about illegals. One of his criticisms of the incumbent, Martha Coakley, is that she is “wrong” on illegal immigration, apparently meaning she hasn’t rooted out the small number of people who might be taking advantage of state programs they don’t deserve.

This was the same mistake made this summer when ill-informed legislators strutted around proposing anti-immigrant measures that denied services to people who couldn’t produce documentation. “But they were already disqualified from receiving services,” said state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, whose district includes many immigrants. “It wasn’t true.”
Let’s step back to explore the illegal immigrant situation in Boston. No one knows what it is.

We know about immigrants in general. The numbers are growing, according to a recent study by Alvaro Lima and Mark Melnik of the BRA and Barry Bluestone of Northeastern. From 1980 to 2007, Boston’s white population went from 68 to 50 percent. The African American population stabilized at 22 percent, and the Latino population doubled to 16 percent. The Asian population increased from three to eight percent.

It might surprise everyone that Boston—21st in population— is sixth in the percentage of foreign-born residents, about 27 percent, more than Phoenix, El Paso or San Diego.

It’s hard to tell how many of the foreign-born are “undocumented,” said Melnik. Since 1867, the U.S. Constitution has directed the census to count everyone who is physically present. It doesn’t address legality.

About half the illegal immigrants in Massachusetts have overstayed their visas, said Sarah Ignatius, executive director of the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation (PAIR) Project. The other half have sneaked in.

PAIR provides legal services for legal and illegal immigrants. Undocumented persons they have helped include students who drop out of school and individuals seeking political asylum as well as criminals, who are usually deported. PAIR and its 500-plus volunteer attorneys help about 1,500 people a year. Africans are most likely to seek asylum, she said. Central Americans, Brazilians and Caribbean islanders are the most common illegal immigrants PAIR sees.

Legal or illegal, it’s the spillover effect that bothers Chang-Diaz. “When you have public vitriol about illegal immigration, the line blurs quickly between illegal and legal immigrants,” she noted. “Economic hard times are upon us. Immigrants are the easiest scapegoat.”

Some politicians urge crack-downs on immigrants because they believe immigrants cause crime. But in Arizona, crime has actually gone down in the last few years, despite an increase in illegal immigrants. Chang-Diaz maintains that illegals are unlikely to commit crimes, since encounters with police will surely get them deported. “The facts just don’t support linking illegal immigrants with an increase in crime,” said Chang-Diaz.

So why are some people in such a lather over illegal immigration? I called Congressman Michael Capuano, a practical legislator who doesn’t demogogue.

Capuano said a tough economy is ripe for blaming on illegal immigrants, but there’s more. “Lots of people don’t want to solve the problem,” he said. “They have axes to grind, or want a bogeyman.” There are vested interests—farm owners, for example—who want to keep illegals, he pointed out.

He believes immigration is an economic question, and we agree on the basics. Has immigration benefited this country?” Most people say yes.

“Should we have limitations?” Most people would agree. “If we had open borders, 20 people would show up for every job,” he said, even if the jobs are picking lettuce or cleaning dishes in a restaurant. So we have to do better at strengthening borders.

The number of immigrants we allow each year should depend on the number of jobs we need to fill, he said. That varies, so the number should change. He said it is unrealistic to think we can stop all illegal immigration or that we can kick out the 10 million illegal immigrants who are here already, so there must be a path to citizenship. Capuano would start with offering green cards to anyone who graduates with honors in any science. “I don’t care where they are from,” he said.

“My interest is in what’s best for the country, what’s workable, what’s doable,” he said. “We want immigrants to become citizens, build a life, improve the country.”

Maybe Mary has a chance after all.

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