“There’s no simple way to fix it legally,” he said. “There’s not a method to immigrate a low-skilled worker and keep them legal here the whole time.”
Fact is, most of the estimated 10 to 20 million people who are in the U.S. illegally are here in low-skilled jobs, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a national research institute. Olsen said the public’s lack of understanding on immigration law contributes to the frustration many Americans feel toward illegal aliens. That’s especially the case in Dalton where nearly half the city’s 33,000 residents are Hispanic, and a significant percentage of them are believed to be here illegally.
“After 9/11 our immigration laws got so tough,” Olsen said. “I think they’re the toughest in the world. It’s beyond tough to come to this country legally.”
There are just three legal ways to immigrate to the U.S. since the government tightened restrictions after 9/11, Olsen said: Family sponsorship, employer sponsorship or on a humanitarian waiver. Someone who entered the country without coming through an inspection point technically isn’t an immigrant at all, but an alien, an “entry without inspection,” he said.
A humanitarian waiver is granted only for people in refugee camps in places like Cuba or Somalia where the government is oppressing people to the point they fear for their lives. Just living in an impoverished or drug war-ridden country won’t get you a waiver.
Family sponsorship is time consuming and costly, but it can be done, he said. A U.S. citizen, or sometimes a green card holder, can apply for their spouse to come to the states, and the process usually takes about a year. Sponsorships for a sibling take eight to nine years, and an application for a person over 21 years old to have a parent come to the states takes at least a year, he said.
Employer sponsorship can be even more costly and time-consuming, Olsen said. Immigrant visas for employment are generally granted only for highly-skilled workers with a bachelor’s degree or greater. Before the employer can sponsor someone outside the U.S., they must prove through a series of job advertisements and legal fees costing thousands of dollars that no qualified person in the U.S. region will take the job.
“It costs thousands of dollars to advertise that way, not even counting the filing fees and everything else like that. The employer has to pay all of that,” Olsen said. “If you qualify to get a green card, it takes almost eight to nine years.”
Dalton immigration lawyer Carlos Calderin said there are temporary visas for agriculture workers or non-skilled non-agriculture workers to come to the U.S. for less than a year.
“There’s a lot of hurdles, and you (the employer) have to show a temporary need, a need that is less than a year, so if an individual needs a worker for more than a year, that visa won’t work,” he said.
Many employers connect with foreign workers through recruiting agencies in other countries, a practice Calderin said is often surrounded with allegations of corruption and wrongdoing. Sometimes the employer applies for a “blanket visa” for a certain number of workers without actually knowing which individuals the employer is getting, he said.
“That has caused some sort of controversy because the would-be worker has to be outside of the country,” he added. “There’s no mechanism for the person who is already here who may be out of immigration status to be able to gain one of these work visas.”
Father Paul Williams at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church said the process of getting proper documentation is a source of frustration to many of his parishioners at the primarily Hispanic church. The public often doesn’t understand the difficulties involved, he said — that not everyone who is here without current documentation is a renegade who sneaked across the border.
“A lot of the people that I encounter, they enter the country legally, and some, yes, may have overstayed a visa or a vacation visa or something like that,” he said. “Others came and began the process (of becoming legal), but somewhere along the line ... the process stopped. And at that point they already had a home and children, and they had not been declared illegal by the state or federal government, and they had not been asked to leave, but they cannot continue, for whatever reason, their documentation process.
“That can come about with the death of a spouse, that can come about with problems with documents — I know people who have had their documents stolen or had fraud committed on them by people who were saying, ‘We will help you become a citizen,’ but they were actually being defrauded. So a lot of people are what I would call in limbo because they have not been declared illegal by the state or the federal, but they also can’t continue their documentation process for whatever reason.”
There is virtually no mechanism for someone who entered the country illegally to gain legal status while in the U.S., he said. Calderin said that under a law that expired 10 years ago, someone who came here illegally could petition for legal residency without returning to their home country. There’s such a backlog of petitions, Calderin said, that some people are still awaiting word on whether they’ll be approved.
America Gruner of the nonprofit Coalition of Latino Leaders (CLILA), said that organization has helped more than 400 people become citizens since it opened five years ago. The application process of late takes between six and eight months, she said. CLILA provides help filling out the application free of charge, but the application fee is $680.
For many people, the process of becoming a citizen takes years longer than the minimum five years of being a legal resident required before they can apply because they must learn English before they’re ready to study for their citizenship test. (For legal residents of an American spouse, the wait time is three years.)
As for immigration, Gruner said many people in the Hispanic community would readily become legalized if there were a way to do so. It’s better, she said, than “living in fear every day” that they could be deported, often resulting in separation from their family.
“Even some people are willing to pay a fine or whatever is required to become legalized,” she said. “That would be so much easier than going through deportation and going out in fear.”
‘The right way’
Within the law, there’s virtually nothing anyone can do to somehow help most illegal residents stay here legally, including children whose parents brought them across the border.
What about the school system helping students who were brought here against the law by their parents?
“There’s nothing the school can do. If you enter illegally to the U.S. you cannot adjust your status,” Olsen said. “If you are an EWI — entry without inspection — you cannot adjust status. You cannot change your status because you didn’t have one. So they can’t immigrate. They can’t be here. Our law is very strict, very narrow on it, very clear.”
What about adoption?
“Again, in order to adjust status inside the U.S. you have to have what? A legal entry. They did not have what? A legal entry. They did not enter on a visa. They were not inspected, and they were not issued what’s called an I-94 card.”
“I think the problem is a lot of the people who are against illegals being here is they say ‘Well, if they just did it the right way, I’d be for it,’” Olsen said. “You don’t know what the right way is.”
Not so for Jan Pourquoi (pronounced poor-KWA), a Dalton resident who does know “the right way” and is frustrated that his home has become what he calls a “sanctuary city for illegals.” Pourquoi immigrated from Belgium on a work visa in the 1980s when he was in his late 20s. The process took several months and a few hundred dollars, he said. By the mid-1990s, he had paid $10,000 in attorney’s fees and other costs to complete the process of becoming a U.S. citizen.
Pourquoi still speaks with an accent, but he has his own business in the carpet industry, knows English well and is proud of his citizenship. He believes allowing an influx of illegal workers is exploitative of those workers and harmful to poor, less educated Americans.
Labor, he said, is a commodity just like anything else. Olsen talks of employers he worked with during the housing boom a few years ago and of their difficulty in finding American workers to do low-skilled jobs. Olsen believes the solution lies in creating a legal means for more low-skilled workers to come to the U.S. Pourquoi believes higher wages are the right answer.
After all, Pourquoi said, when demand rises, the price should rise with it. The effect would have been to raise more lower socioeconomic class Americans out of poverty and into the middle class, he said. Instead, the influx of alien workers oppressed the job market, exploited illegal workers and allowed many corporations and their supporters to grow richer.
“By default, you squeeze out the middle class,” he said, “and that’s what happened in Dalton.”
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