Rhode Island a Prime Example of Split on Immigration Reform

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


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As the nation switches its focus this week from debating about gun control and what policies the Obama administration should take in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting to talking about the always-controversial topic of immigration reform, perhaps no state better represents the wide range of opinions and opposing views than Rhode Island.

According to the most recent data available—data commissioned in a February 2011 study by the Pew Institute—there are an estimated 30,000 undocumented immigrants in the Ocean State.

But how big a problem illegal immigration is in Rhode Island depends largely on who you ask and the thoughts surrounding what type of reform is necessary not only in the Ocean State but in the nation as a whole are as complex and varied as the topic itself.

Already, Rhode Island lawmakers have tried to tackle the state’s problem in a number of ways but while some feel more needs to be done to welcome undocumented workers “out of the shadows” with incentive programs that provide a path to citizenship, still others believe it is the state’s duty to enforce the laws on its books and deter the next wave of immigrants from coming to RI in the first place.

All, however, seem to agree on one thing: something’s got to change.

The Current Plan

Earlier this week, a group of Senators presented their bi-partisan recommendations on how best to reform immigration in America.

The recommendations appear to offer key victories to proponents on both sides of the debate as, if enacted, the plan would allow for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the country while also enforcing the laws currently on the books and making it tougher for said immigrants to get work in the country illegally.

"Our current immigration system is broken and has long been unacceptable for economic, security and humanitarian reasons,” Congressman Jim Langevin said this week. “I'm encouraged by the cooperation that has gone into the frameworks announced by a bipartisan group of Senators yesterday and laid out by the President today, both of which would deal with our most important immigration challenges.”

Already, however, some Rhode Islanders are concerned with the progress that can actually be made as a notoriously gridlocked Congress takes on the measure and wonder what real impact, if any, change may bring.

“I think the system they’re trying to force upon us right now is a scam,” said Terry Gorman, president of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement. “If there are 11 million people that are going to supposedly come out of the shadows and identify themselves, who’s going to take that information? Once they’re out of the shadows and identify themselves, they have to prove how long they’ve been here, how’s that process going to happen?
I mean the bureaucracy is monumental.”

Rhode Island Representative David Cicilline says any attempt at reform has to include a “roadmap for New Americans who aspire to be citizens,” a point that will likely be met with resistance by many in Congress.

“People move their families here to the land of freedom and opportunity, in order to provide a better life for their children and in doing so contribute to the culture and the economy of our country,” Cicilline said. “It is long past time we enact a common sense immigration policy that secures our borders and provides a path to citizenship for those who pay taxes and pass a criminal background check.”

Is it a problem in RI?

Perhaps the most interesting point of the discussion here at home is that people in Rhode Island can’t even agree on whether or not illegal immigration is a problem in the Ocean State.

Representative Doreen Costa, an outspoken supporter of the E-Verify system that would require employers to check on a potential employee’s citizen status, says Rhode Island has a major issue with undocumented immigrants within its borders.

“It’s a huge, huge problem,” she said. “Just last month, we had a whole bunch of illegals come into the State House and ask the governor for a license and they admitted that they were illegals.”
Costa praised President Obama for showing support to E-Verify but says her attempts to bring it up in the Rhode Island State House have been met with resistance.

“That’s a bill that’s been up to committee every year for the past four-six years and it hasn’t gotten out of committee,” she said.

Representative Grace Diaz couldn’t disagree with Costa more.

“I don’t think it’s a big issue to put a lot of energy to,” she said. “For regular people who are undocumented, it’s hard to get a job, it’s hard to survive and I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t have any documents or anything to prove who they are being able to work in these regular jobs. For that reason, I don’t think that we have something to worry about.”

Diaz also disputes that undocumented workers have any impact on Rhode Island’s economy but the real affect may not be in a tangible number.

“The biggest problem that I see if the jobs situation,” said 920 WHJJ talk radio host Helen Glover. “When I was younger, I would work in restaurants and as long as you wanted to work, you could work and make some money and a lot of the kids that were teenagers got jobs as dishwashers in the kitchen and that kind of stuff and those jobs are gone now, they’re taken by illegal immigrants.”

Diaz says the true effect that undocumented workers have on Rhode Island will never be known if they’re not encouraged to come forward.

“I think it’s time for people to come out of the shadows and then we can count it and then we can see what kind of skills they can provide to the state where they live, Rhode Island or wherever it is,” she said. “I think it’s important for this country to address that now and figure that out now because we are putting this issue behind us.”

A lot to consider

There are still a lot of wildcards in the debate, not the least of which is the issue of the path to citizenship.

Even Costa says she doesn’t know where she would stand if she had to choose whether to allow immigrants to stay in Rhode Island or deport them if given the choice.

“That’s a good question,” she said. “Should they be extended? It depends on how long they’ve been here. How long have they been here? Have they broken the law? Do they have children that are in the school system? Are they working? That would have to be a whole bunch of things that would have to be implemented for them to get a path to citizenship.”

For Diaz, the whole topic of immigration reform in Rhode Island and nationwide comes down to one word: “respect.”

“I would like to see us in general treat them in different ways,” she said. “I think by treating them in a different way, we can also see the issue with different perspective, the perspective of trying to resolve it, of trying to see how we can come out with legislation without hurting anyone, legislation that protects this wonderful country.”


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