Walls Closing In On Immigrants

Walls closing in on immigrants
Economy, border crackdown hits community hard

By Laura Crimaldi
The Boston Herald, February 22, 2009

A worldwide economic crisis coupled with a surge in border enforcement at the end of the Bush administration is snuffing out the American dream for thousands of immigrants, legal and illegal, advocates and researchers say.

The winds buffeting immigrants, who are struggling for work and cutting the money they send home as the recession deepens, are described by advocates as a troubling bellwether for America, the premier global destination for migrants.

For foes of illegal immigration, the trend offers hope that undocumented workers will leave the country while fewer seek entry.

'The reality is that we should be very concerned when America is no longer a place where immigrants want to go,' said Charles H. Kuck, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. 'You dont want to be Russia.'

Last year, 1.3 million illegal immigrants left the country as border patrols and workplace raids intensified in the waning months of the Bush White House, according to the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies.

With the national unemployment rate at 7.6 percent, work is drying up for 22.1 million immigrants in the United States, including about 6.5 million illegal immigrants, many of whom work and pay taxes and many of whom put a strain on schools, prison systems and social service agencies.

'Theres a fall-off in the illegal population, and it seems to be caused by things other than the economy. That doesnt mean that the economy does not play a big role in terms of whats going on,' said the director of research at the center, Steven A. Camarota.

Trickling in

Camarota found the December 2008 unemployment rates for high school-educated immigrants, legal and illegal, was 11 percent – well above the national average.

Many undocumented workers find employment in dirty, dangerous, low-wage jobs in construction, agriculture and service industries. The center estimates the U.S. illegal migrant population peaked at 12.5 million in August 2007. By last May that figure had dipped by 11 percent, to 11.2 million.

'There are still people coming in, but they are coming in at slower and reduced rates. Thats been the pattern in the past economic downturns,' said Rakesh Kochhar, associate director for research at the Pew Hispanic Center.

In a study published this month, Pew found that from the last quarter of 2007 to the last quarter of 2008, the unemployment rate for foreign-born Hispanics increased from 5.1 percent to 8 percent.

The higher unemployment rates mean a steep decline in remittances sent to countries like Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras, where people rely heavily on wages sent from North America.

Remittances, Mexicos second-largest source of foreign income after oil, plunged 3.6 percent, to $25 billion in 2008, compared to $26 billion for the previous year, according to a Pew report and the countrys central bank.

'A lot of people back home depend on remittances sent from the U.S., and those have gone down quite a bit,' Kochhar said.

Fausto da Rocha, director of the Brazilian Immigrant Center in Allston, said the unemployment rate among Brazilian immigrants was less than 1 percent statewide until the economic crisis hit.

'Now we see more and more Brazilians unemployed and we see them making the decision to move back to Brazil,' da Rocha said.

There are 230,000 Brazilians living in Massachusetts. Da Rocha said dormant downtowns in Framingham, Milford and Marlboro were revitalized with Brazilian small businesses, restaurants and churches in the last 25 years.

Da Rocha said the Brazilian exodus drained 5,000 to 7,000 immigrants from the state in 2007 and another 10,000 last year. Further, people leaving Brazil for a better life now go to Canada or Europe.

The Brazilian flight could cost the state millions in tax dollars and put landlords of multifamily homes in peril as their paying tenants move out, da Rocha said.

Bailout block

At the other end of the economic scale, well-educated foreigners working here with temporary H-1B visas were blindsided by a provision in the federal economic stimulus plan that restricts financial institutions receiving bailout funds from using the visa program to hire foreign workers for two years.

The federal government issues 65,000 H-1B visas annually for employers to hire foreign workers with special skills or training.

The visas are good for three years and can be renewed once. In 2007, 34 percent of the 461,730 H-1B visa holders were from India, according to federal data.

The number of H-1B visas sought by the financial industry is 'negligible,' according to the National Foundation for American Policy. H-1B visa hires accounted for 0.03 percent of workers – 66 employees – at Bank of America in 2007, when the nations largest bank employed 210,000 people, data show.

The rules have raised concerns that proposals will pop up to restrict visas in other industries.

'The arguments put forward by some senators in the recent stimulus package implying that H-1B professionals would taking jobs from U.S. citizens are misleading,' Boston immigration attorney Trupti N. Patel said in an e-mail.

'The H-1B professionals are not here to replace U.S. workers nor are they source of cheap labor,' Patel said. 'If amendments like these continue to be proposed then this will further (affect) our economy.'

EDITORS NOTE: A recent CIS backgrounder on illegal aliens and enforcement is available online at: http://www.cis.org/trends_and_enforcement