In this age of constant emails, it’s rare that I receive one that causes me to stop what I’m doing, re-read it, and puzzle over it for the rest of the day. I received just such an email this week. After puzzling over it for hours, the real immigration issues became evident. These issues are important for Houstonians and Americans all across the country. The email concerned a three-day event being held in Houston by the Remembrance Project. Donald Trump is going to be speaking on Saturday at the event, and that got my attention. I had never heard of the organization before, so I went to its website read about its focus. The website states:
The Remembrance Project advocates for families whose loved ones were killed by illegal aliens. Since 2009, Maria [Espinoza, the Co-founder and National Director of the Remembrance Project] has worked to unite the ‘stolen lives’ families, educating the public of the epidemic of killings across the country, and raising awareness of the effects of illegal immigration. It is not a victimless crime. Maria believes current laws and borders should be enforced, and that Americans must be the priority in America.
When I read this, I felt a combination of emotions – sadness at the loss of life experienced by these families was the first and strongest. It still is. But I also felt something nagging at me as I thought about the actions this organization supports. I’ve practiced immigration law for almost nine years. I’m Board Certified in Immigration Law (which means I love it enough to take an extremely painful exam to prove I am specialized). I puzzled over the founder’s stated mission.
The group makes a valid point: if these people who were responsible for the deaths of their loved ones hadn’t been here, their loved ones might still be with us. As someone who helps people to either come to the U.S. legally, or get legal status there if they do not currently have it, I completely understand how anyone – especially someone who has lost a loved one – could say that if an undocumented person took a loved one’s life, we would be better off without that person in our country. If we have undocumented individuals who have committed crimes that result in extreme losses to our citizens, sure – it would be great if they had never been here in the first place. I understand.
Something still bothers me, and I think everyone needs to be aware of it, regardless of who we are inclined to vote for. The site says the organization’s founder is
educating the public of [sic] the epidemic of killings across the country, and raising awareness of the effects of illegal immigration” because “[illegal immigration] is not a victimless crime.
My instinctive response as an attorney is to point out that the statement is legally incorrect: In general, entering the country without authorization (or staying beyond the time allowed in the United States) is not a crime at all. It is considered a civil violation.
As I pondered further, I was sure that there was no link between being an “illegal immigrant” (which in itself may mean different things to different people) and committing a crime, especially a violent one. As I looked at information from the GAO, FBI, Immigrants’ Rights organizations, and other groups, I could see statistics published that show no correlation between undocumented immigrants and crime, and statistics that showed a correlation. As the Center for Immigrant Studies (an independent, non-partisan, non-profit, research organization aimed at “providing immigration policymakers, the academic community, news media, and concerned citizens with reliable information about the social, economic, environmental, security, and fiscal consequences of legal and illegal immigration into the United States”) noted in a 2009 report, it is extremely difficult to obtain real data on this subject.
Notes the report:
Overall incarceration rates are also a poor means of examining the link between immigration and crime. Since the 1970s, the share of the U.S. population that is incarcerated has grown almost exactly in proportion to the share of the population that is immigrant. But unless inmates can be identified as immigrant or native-born, this information sheds little light on the issue of immigrant criminality.
But one thing we do know is that there are a lot of other, non-criminal “effects of illegal immigration.” On February 24, 2016, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy issued a report titled Undocumented Immigrants’ State and Local Tax Contributions which noted that the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States collectively paid $11.64 billion in state and local taxes.
We also know from a February 28, 2016 report by the American Action Forum what we already knew from previous years: removing all undocumented immigrants from the United States and preventing all future unlawful entry would cost between $400 billion and $600 billion and reduce real gross domestic product (GDP) by over $1 trillion.
We know that some of our industries depend on skilled labor and are heavily serviced by undocumented immigrants, such as construction, landscaping, and hospitality. On August 25, 2016, Time reported that Mr. Trump himself not only employed but even sought out undocumented immigrants to work at his construction sites in the 1980s.
I cite this not because I condone or support working without authorization, but because we know we have a need for people to be here in certain industries – we are aware that they are here, that they are willing to do honest work and pay taxes, and their services are gladly used. It is tough for most of the undocumented immigrants in this country to obtain legal status here. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) erected barriers to obtaining legal status that our system had never had in place before. As I see it, it’s no wonder we’ve had a growing undocumented population over the last 20 years – it’s gotten much harder to get legal status, especially if a person is here and then leaves with the goal of returning.
While remembering the victims of “illegal immigration,” we must also acknowledge that the failure of our immigration system to accommodate the needs of our country and our citizens is not victimless either: Families are prevented from living together, employers have no means to help otherwise responsible and dependable employees obtain legal status (or work authorization), and the undocumented population remains vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
When I consider that the Remembrance Project has chosen to have Mr. Trump speak at its event, presumably due to his support for building a wall and forcing all undocumented immigrants to depart and apply to come back legally, which many will not be able to do without a change in our immigration laws, there is a glaring problem. Our issue with the undocumented population will not be resolved by the building of a wall. The wall won’t do anything about those who are already here. And deporting everyone is not feasible for our country or beneficial to us, and we know it.
The founder of Remembrance Project “believes current laws and borders should be enforced, and that Americans must be the priority in America.” The fact is, immigration laws have been enforced rigorously in the last eight years, a fact acknowledged by Mr. Trump in late August when he stated that would continue to prioritize the deportation of dangerous criminals as President Obama has done. Trump also indicated that those who are undocumented and haven’t committed crimes might deserve an opportunity to remain in the United States. He received a mixed reaction to his comments, but these were among the more sensible immigration “policies” he has voiced.
This is the problem: we can’t deport everyone. Even if we could, and we did, it would kill our economy. So that’s not a feasible solution. The link between the undocumented and violent crime hasn’t been clearly proven. And in the midst of all of this, many undocumented immigrants have contributed substantially to our economy. Our lawmakers have not taken action to allow the undocumented to obtain lawful status despite the fact that our economy desperately needs them.
I’m not writing this article because I immigrated to the United States myself,– I am a 4th (maybe 5th) generation Texan, with family originating from Germany, Spain, Mexico, Scotland, Lebanon, and probably other places we’re unaware of. I am not a direct victim of the failure of our immigration system to grow and change with our country. But because of my work, I see the effects of its failure every day – the obstacles American families, valued workers, and fledgling businesses face, and the backlogs of a decade or more for highly skilled immigrants from China and India. I also see many immigrant victims of crimes and the difficulties they face trying to navigate a legal system that is new to them. Offences committed against them are no less significant if they were perpetrated by citizens of our country.
The heartbreak that our citizens face when loved ones are victims of crime is no less tragic when the perpetrator is a United States citizen. We can always tell ourselves that the person shouldn’t have been where he was, shouldn’t have done what he did, should be punished, should be imprisoned, etc. I am not here to argue about that. But if we want to move forward as a country and to benefit ourselves and continue to enforce our immigration laws without harming our citizens and our country’s economy, we need an honest conversation about the real problems with our immigration laws as they currently stand, and we need to determine what is feasible and beneficial to our country.
Kathryn N. Karam has exclusively practiced immigration law since November 2007. She is Board Certified in Immigration and Nationality Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. Board Certification is given by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization to attorneys that demonstrate the highest public commitment to excellence in their area of law. Less than 10% of licensed Texas attorneys are Board Certified.