Migrants decry new US legislation

Some migrants promise civil disobedience, while farmers in Georgia hire ex-convicts as Latin Americans leave.

US immigrations rights protests [GALLO/GETTY]
Immigrants across the US have made vocal demands in recent years [GALLO/GETTY]

Like thousands of undocumented people across the US, Alicia Torres waits apprehensively as a new bill which she thinks will lead to racial profiling and employment discrimination sits on the North Carolina governor’s desk waiting for the stamp of approval.

Immigration policy is generally considered to be a federal responsibility in the US, but North Carolina is the latest state to make its own rules.

House Bill 36, which has been passed by North Carolina’s state congress and senate, will institute an E-Verify system, demanding some employers match social security numbers against the names of people they hire.
Critics like Torres say the computerised system is based on unreliable data and its implementation will make it harder for immigrants to find work, as business won’t want to risk the trouble or oversight of hiring people of colour or those whose English isn’t perfect.

“When the economy took a downfall, as history teaches us, people are going to look for a scape goat and in this case it was undocumented immigrants,” Torres, an activist with the group NC Dream Team, told Al Jazeera. “The biggest issue we have with this bill is that it will make life harder for undocumented kids.”

An undocumented worker herself, Torres is bi-lingual and has a nursing degree from an American college, but is unable to work in her field because she lacks a social security number.

Civil disobedience

Bev Perdu, North Carolina’s governor, could veto the bill but that seems unlikely and it will probably be passed into law in the coming days.

As the federal government has been unable to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, conservatives around the US are applauding North Carolina’s efforts. “It is great to see so many state lawmakers stepping up to the plate to represent the 80 per cent of Americans who want illegal immigration stopped and reversed at every level of government,” said William Gheen, President of Americans for Legal Immigration, a group that opposes undocumented migration, in a release. “These state law battles in Texas and North Carolina are essential to our efforts to build national momentum for immigration enforcement.”

Torres and other undocumented workers around the US are increasingly declaring their status openly, as a protest to legislation which they say criminilises them. “We are at a point where there will be civil disobedience,” Torres said. “We have studied and learned from the civil rights era; sometimes you have to fight the system to make it change.”

She has openly declared her “illegal” status, and other migrants in the same position will be traveling to Georgia’s state capital on Tuesday to “come out of the shadows and declare that we are undocumented, unafraid and unashamed”. On July 1, a new immigration law comes into effect in Georgia which has similarities to North Carolina’s legislation.

Farm owners in Georgia have been forced “reluctantly to turn to ex-convicts as Latin American manual workers flee… fearing deportation if caught working there,” the AFP news agency reported.

The new legislation in North Carolina will, however, allow farm labourers and employees of businesses with less than 25 employees to continue working on a contract basis, without using the E-Verify system.

“Immigrants are filling positions no person in this country wants,” said Pablo Escobar director at El Pueblo, a civil rights organisation. “These are hard jobs that pay low wages and employers can’t find the people to provide the quality of work that immigrants give at such low wages,” he told Al Jazeera.

Escobar isn’t advocating civil disobedience. Rather, he wants politicians in Washington to deal with immigration reform, rather than allowing states to create a “whole patch work of laws and practices”.

The root of the problem, he says, is that the US needs labour and isn’t issuing enough work visas, thus “forcing employers and workers to break the law to meet an economic need”.

Even with the unemployment rate hovering around nine per cent, many native born Americans do not want to pick tobacco, wash dishes or clean houses and rely on migrants to do this work efficiently and cheaply, he says. 

Strange bedfellows

The political blocs supporting immigration reform and a path to legalisation for undocumented workers are atypical for American politics, signaling some of the reconfigurations globalisation has thrust upon political allegiances across the world.

“You see strange bedfellows: employers, the chambers of commerce and university elites on one side and then people who may feel threatened economically on the other side of the spectrum,” said Kevin Johnson, a professor of law who studies immigration at the University of California.

“Immigration is not a liberal vs conservative issue. You have Democrats who are pro-immigrant and others who are anti-immigrant.”

In December 2010, federal politicians came close to passing the Dream Act, legislation which would have given legal status and a chance for citizenship to undocumented workers who went to college or served in the military.

The legislation, which supporters consider a crucial step for some of the estimated 11 million people living in the shadows to attain normal immigration status, was passed by house of representatives but not the senate.

“It doesn’t appear that comprehensive immigration reform is likely for the next two years,” Johnson told Al Jazeera, after the legislation failed to pass.

While lobbying for the Dream Act, Torres and her allies met with several political leaders. “A lot of politicians said they would support it behind closed doors, but they were more worried about the re-election,” she said.


Despite the recession and high unemployment rates across the industrialised world, Pols in the UK, Turks in Germany and south Asians in the Arabian Gulf – who have no hope of ever getting citizenship – will take jobs that naturalised citizens simply don’t want to do.

Elements of the working class in these regions complain that migrants lower wages across the board, while business elites often support increased migration, allowing them access to large pools of labour with fewer rights than the native born population.

In 1992, Alicia Torres’ family crossed the border in the middle of the night, as her father couldn’t put food on the table. When hunger is the motivation for migration, bigger fences are rarely an effective. And, even if individuals states are passing strict laws, some analysts are left wondering about the legitimacy of restrictions.

“We allow for the free movement of goods and service in North America [under trade agreements] but not the free movement of people,” said professor Johnson. “Making it more difficult for people to come doesn’t work and is not the solution.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies