Henry Ho made up his mind that he wanted to stay in New York shortly after he arrived here from Taiwan as a graduate student a year and half ago. That is why, just three months short of getting his M.B.A. from Baruch College, he regards with a bitter irony the Bush Administration's new proposals to help immigrants.
“They would give out green cards to the illegals but not someone like me,” said Ho.
Ho was referring to the Bush Administration’s proposed “temporary worker" program, which would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a three-year work permit with their employers’ sponsorship, and enjoy other rights, such as minimum wage and union benefits. The proposal is widely believed to benefit low-skilled workers who are unable to get a work permit through regular channels.
“They make it so difficult for those who want to do it the right way but make it easy for those who are unskilled and illegal,” said Ho, who is hoping to get a visa for skilled workers, called an H-1B visa, through his future employer. However, it has gotten increasingly difficult, with many employers reluctant to sponsor because of the complicated paperwork, and the number of visas issued has been reduced by nearly half last year.
But can the new proposal really bring salvation to the large underclass of illegal immigrants? To many, this program is far from perfect and has raised both hopes and confusion.
Elsa Vergara, who came from Ecuador in 1977 and worked under a fake Social Security card that she bought for $400, said the purpose of this program is unclear.
“It is probably Bush’s plan to control people and collect more taxes,” Vergara said. “I heard discussions on this subject on the radio every morning but no one seems to know whether it is safe to join the program.” Those who want to join the program would have to pay taxes and pass a background check by the Department of Homeland Security.
One of the proposal’s biggest controversies that keep many undocumented workers from endorsing it is that the program does not offer a path to eventual permanent residency or citizenship. Although the permit can be renewed for an unspecified number of years, workers have to return to their home countries when their permits expire, and would have to apply for green cards through regular channels.
But under current U.S. immigration law, it is almost impossible for unskilled workers to obtain work visas because their levels of salary and position simply would not qualify (with the exception of seasonal agricultural jobs).
“Most of the illegal workers are here to stay,” said Vergara, who eventually obtained permanent residency through an amnesty program in 1986. “That’s why I doubt many would actually come forward because they are afraid to be deported.”
Immigrant groups say the proposal provides cheap, exploitable labor for the American economy but disregards the future of immigrant workers.
“Under the guise of immigration reform, the president has proposed a temporary worker program which does not lead to permanent residency and citizenship and essentially says to the immigrant community ’work hard, pay taxes, and then get lost,’” said Margie McHugh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.
Meanwhile, many believe that this new proposal would encourage illegal immigration, forcing more people out of job.
“The U.S. government should take care of the people who are already here,” said Ling Zhang, a native of Zhejiang, China, who works as a home health aide. “There are only so many jobs here but more and more people are coming here every day.”
Many Americans also opposed the proposal, saying it only benefits countries like Mexico but does no good for America.
“Mexico exports its poorest people to America,” wrote B.J. Sullivan of San Francisco in a letter to the New York Times. “They work for low wages; they send money back to Mexico; and they use our social services, our hospitals and our schools.”
On the other hand, some critics denounced the program as a re-election campaign effort to appeal to the Hispanic community, which is the fastest growing sector of the electorate. The Hispanics, particularly Mexicans, make up the majority of the eight to 10 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
“Latino voters will not be fooled,” said Moises Perez, executive director of Allianza Dominicana, the largest organization serving New York’s Dominican community. “President Bush’s proposal is a dead-end, not an opportunity.”
But some say the program is well-intended, though it will take time to develop.
“I think it is still good news to the illegal immigrants,” said Annie Yeh, a longtime New York resident who came from Taiwan 30 years ago. “Maybe there will be a follow-up bill in the future that will help them eventually get their green cards.”
A native of Taipei, Taiwan, Larry Tung, a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher and video artist, is a frequent contributor to the Citizen.