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By Chaleampon Ritthichai
Amnesty For Undocumented Immigrants
Like many other undocumented immigrants, Tony Amadi often has to weigh a difficult decision. Last year when his mother fell sick in Nigeria, Amadi had to decide whether to stay and work in New York or to leave and face the possibility of not being able to return to the country. If he leaves the country, Amadi will be barred from entering the United States for at least 10 years.
"I want to stay and make a living here," said Amadi who works as a deliveryman.
Stories like Amadi's are quite common in immigrant communities.
"Undocumented immigrants are being penalized in inhumane ways - through family separations, through the inability to organize and stand up for their rights at their workplaces." said Chung-Wha Hong of New York Immigration Coalition. "All the while we're using them to do the hardest, dirtiest work."
In New York City there are over 400,000 undocumented immigrants. With nation wide figures estimated at eight to ten million more, advocacy groups have launched a campaign for general amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The issue will be highlighted this month when 7,000 immigrant advocates from all over the nation are expected to gather in Washington, D.C. to rally for the legalization of undocumented immigrants.
"Amnesty would be tremendously helpful in bringing immigrants out of the shadows," said Omar Henriques, immigration campaign coordinator for the Service Employees International Union, which has started a postcard campaign in New York City.
"We are going to deliver one million signed postcards petitioning Congress and President Bush to make immigration reforms that will allow hardworking, undocumented people to receive legal status," said Henriques.
Prior to 9/11 President George W. Bush was keen on the idea of amnesty, especially for Mexican immigrants, who account for nearly half of the country's undocumented immigrants. But after the terrorist attacks last September, national security and border patrol became the administration's top priority. The issue of amnesty was picked up again by the Democrats this past spring when House minority leader Dick Gephardt said he plans to introduce legislation granting permanent resident status to illegal immigrants.
"We are pushing it this year so that the issue is kept alive during elections," said Hong. "But we need to put together a bipartisan set of people. So we don't want it to be used by just one party to say, 'We're better than the other party' and to use it to attack the other party."
A political compromise between the two parties was struck the last time the United States granted amnesty to illegal immigrants in 1986. In an exchange for amnesty, the conservative legislators with labor backing were able to put in employer sanctions, making it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to get jobs.
Although the amnesty was a big success in California and Texas, only about 100,000 applicants were from New York. Nationwide only 1.6 million turned in the application -- it was expected that two million out of the 3.9 million illegal immigrants would apply.
Lower-than-expected turnout prompted another attempt to push for amnesty in 1996 but it failed without much debate. Now advocates believe the situation is much different because the initiative is supported by unions.
"The AFL-CIO changed their position on legalization of undocumented workers in 2000," said Henriques, referring to one of the biggest coalitions of America's unions. "This is a win-win situation. If you have bargaining power as a collective, you are in a better position to fight for benefits."
But anti-immigration groups say that unions are looking for more union members in the same way that politicians are looking for more votes. More importantly, they claim, amnesty rewards lawbreakers and encourages more illegal immigration to the Unites States.
"Amnesties always lead to more illegal immigrants," said Jack Martin of The Federation for American Immigration Reform. "We have a generous immigrant law that allows people to come into the country legally. There's no reason that we should tolerate those who do not respect our law."
Proponents of the amnesty argue that historically laws could be on the wrong side, pointing to Prohibition and Jim Crow laws. "If you have a bad law, a lot of people are just going to keep breaking it. They want to just live, and do what they need to survive," Hong said. "We need to fix our laws, so that it allows people who need to come here to come here legally."
But until the law is fixed, undocumented immigrants like Tony Amadi will live in a predicament. With the money he sent for medical expense, Amadi's mother is in good condition but there is always a constant worry on his mind about what's to come.
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