BY AARON RUTKOFF
When the President of the United States speaks, people all over the country, as well as the globe, tend to listen.
But when President George W. Bush delivered a major speech last week on immigration policy reform, many people in Queens listened with particular interest.
President Bush delivered a major speech on immigration policy reform on Jan. 7.
As a borough of immigrants, any overhaul of the national policy on immigration and foreign-born workers will undoubtedly have a huge impact on Queens.
Bush’s speech began with a startling observation, but one shared by many in the borough who have longed advocated for reform. “As a nation that values immigration, and depends on immigration, we should have laws that work and make us proud,” Bush said. “Yet today, we do not.”
The speech continued to focus on a new “temporary worker program,” which would give illegal immigrants who work in this country and fill certain requirements limited legal status.
The question is, how will this proposal – which will face Congressional debate – affect the undocumented immigrants in this borough, who experts say largely contribute to the borough’s economy.
The temporary worker program, according to Bush, “will match foreign workers with willing American employers when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs. This program will offer legal status, as temporary workers, to the millions of undocumented men and women now employed in the United States.”
This new category would allow the undocumented population of illegal immigrants in the U.S. – estimated between eight and 10 million people nationwide – to receive legal status for a three-year period, with the option of at least one term of renewal.
This legal status, Bush emphasized, would be limited.
“This program expects temporary workers to return permanently to their home countries after their period of work in the United States has expired,” explained President Bush. In the speech, Bush specifically opposed amnesty for the undocumented, which only “encourages the violation of our laws,” he said.
The privileges of official status granted by the temporary worker program – such as the ability to travel abroad and return to the U.S., increased workplace protections and legal rights, and access to some sort of Social Security program – only exist as long as these workers remain employed.
Flushing Councilman John Liu and Congressman Gary Ackerman both opposed Bush’s proposal – and indicated support for amnesty. Tribune Photo by Ira Cohen
An Undocumented Economy
There is no Census for undocumented immigrants, many of whom entered the country illegally or else overstayed a temporary visa, and undocumented workers tend to find jobs in the vast underground economy.
According to one expert, that economy is alive and well in Queens.
Andrew Beveridge, a sociology professor at Queens College, studies the shifting demographics of Queens and extrapolates estimates of the undocumented population based on information in the national Census, which perpetually undercounts the foreign-born community because so many illegal immigrants avoid the Census.
“It’s a very high number,” he said of the undocumented population in Queens. “There is something on the order of 40 or 50 percent foreign born in Queens, and there has probably been a growth of 60,000 to 70,000 undocumented in the last decade or so.”
A population of that size, which reaches into six-figures even by most conservative estimates, plays an enormous role in the overall economy of the borough, he said.
“They are working in jobs that would not exist if there were not undocumented laborers,” argued Beveridge, naming the restaurant, garment and cleaning industries as particular beneficiaries.
Fred Fu, head of the Flushing-Chinese Business Association, shared this view of the vital role played by foreign-born workers, including the undocumented, in the borough’s economy. This workforce, he said, is “why Flushing is so booming.”
“We want this sort of policy extended to New York City’s Asian immigrants,” he said of the Bush proposals. “They come here because they want jobs in supermarkets, restaurants and the clothing industry.”
Fu observed, “We have a lot of restaurants that use foreign people in the kitchen and for waiters, and a lot of them don’t have legal status.”
Men On The Street
Day laborers along Roosevelt Avenue – most of whom are illegal immigrants who wait on the street for employers – had mixed reactions to the temporary guest worker program that would give them legal status for three years.
One 57-year-old undocumented resident, who declined to give his name, said the program would allow him to see his three children in Ecuador, whom he last saw six years ago when he came to work in America. What keeps him and other undocumented residents here is money, he said.
“I think I’ll be here for a while, then go home…I’d like to make some decent money before I go,” he said.
Carlos Andreas, 18, a day laborer who said his family had legal status here, said undocumented residents “don’t want to return [to their birthplace.] They came to this country, to this city to work.” Andreas disliked the temporary nature of the proposal. “It’s like giving them something to be yanked back.”
One day-laborer, 26-year-old Richie Luciano from Honduras disagreed, saying three years “is a lot. Each president only has four years.”
Reactions From Washington
Bush’s bill still has to make its way through Congress, which may not be an easy task, according to two of the borough’s representatives.
“I happen to be very pessimistic and skeptical about what the President has announced,” said Congressman Gary Ackerman at a joint press conference with Flushing Councilman John Liu last week.
Liu agreed. “If you look at the last three years under Bush,” he argued, “things have become much more difficult for immigrants and people that want to become Americans.”
Ackerman took particular exception that immigrants would only be allowed to stay in the United States for three years. He said, “What if they have been here for 20 years? What if they have children who are citizens?”
Congressman Anthony Weiner expressed a more ambivalent view, but also seemed skeptical of Bush’s proposal. “We can’t reward people who cheat and we have to make sure we have respect for our immigration laws,” he said.
At the same time, however, Weiner observed the impossibility of eliminating the millions of undocumented people who exist in the U.S. “We would never want to remove everyone from the U.S. who is here illegally, because very often the people who are sustaining our economic greatness are here under the radar,” he explained.
As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Weiner will get a first crack at Bush’s proposals when they come through Congress.
The threat of deportation after a limited term of employment topped his list of problems with the reforms. He noted, “It seems like it may encourage people to say, ‘Listen, I could continue to operate like this for 10 years, why would I sign up for three?’”
Bryan Pu-Folkes, a community activist who heads the Queens-based group New Immigrant Community Empowerment, shared this view.
The Bush proposals, he argued, are “inherently dangerous because a number of people who register in this program may have a greater risk of deportation, which is the exact opposite of what they are looking for.”
He added, “They want a greater sense of security, not to know they risk being deported.”
For both Ackerman and Liu, there exists an alternative to the complicated proposal put forth by President Bush: a national amnesty program for illegal immigrants.
This would allow immigrants who are already living here illegally to stay without fear of deportation.
Liu said, “I think a general amnesty program recognizes the reality we are faced with in Queens and in this country.”
Bush explicitly disavowed general amnesty in his policy speech.
One of the primary concerns expressed by Pu-Folkes was that undocumented people eager for official status would misinterpret Bush’s proposals.
“There are a lot of people who have been celebrating because they are under the impression that this is some sort of amnesty program or some sort of pathway to a green card,” Pu-Folkes said. “All of which is wrong.”