The U.S. Congress is back from its self-imposed government shutdown break. Today, President Obama will presume that Congress (let’s be more accurate and say the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives) will actually wish to accomplish something, and so we now return to the issue of immigration reform.
The key goal of the proposed immigration reform is to give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. These are people who may have spent years working in the U.S., paying taxes, owning homes, and raising families. By all measures, except holding the right legal papers, they have been good Americans. Yet, without reform they could be deported, and their families split up.
One of the near-casualties of outdated immigration laws is a young woman named Daniela Pelaez. In 2012, she was an 18-year-old Miami high school student when a judge ordered her to leave the country.
Pelaez was just four years old when her parents brought her and her family to the U.S. from Columbia and overstayed their visas. Her father is now a U.S. resident, and her brother, who served in the U.S. military, is a citizen. But the judge turned down her application for permanent residence, and ordered Daniela and her sister to be deported.
Pelaez, it so happens, was the valedictorian student in her class at North Miami Senior High School. As the top student in her class, and one who hoped to become a doctor, Pelaez became a symbol of the kind of person who shouldn’t be kicked out of the U.S.
In fact, almost 3,000 of her fellow students came out to protest against her deportation.
A few months later, in June 2012, President Obama issued a new directive from the Department of Homeland Security that effectively halted the deportation of people like Pelaez. Under Obama’s new rule, the U.S. government would defer the deportation of “productive young people” under the age of 30 who came to the U.S. under the age of 16, who were in high school or graduated from high school or who served in the military, and who had a clean criminal record. Instead the government would focus on people who are not productive citizens, and who may have criminal records.
Obama’s new enforcement rule last year was a temporary effort to stop the deportation of young people who have spent most of their lives in the U.S. Pelaez was able to stay in America and accept a full scholarship to attend Dartmouth College.
Lasting change will come with a major reform of America’s immigration laws, and Obama and the rest of the nation now await the House of Representatives to finally do it. Yet, there are ultra-conservative Tea Party members of the Republican Party that are holding back reform with incredibly exaggerated ideas of hordes of Mexican drug runners crossing America’s southern border.
“For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” U.S. Representative Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, said in an interview in July. “Those people would be legalized with the same act,” he added.
Of course it’s not true, and King should know that without recent immigrants, his own home state would be suffering.
“In Iowa, they are helping to maintain our population base. Without immigration and refugees, we’d be losing population,” says Mark Grey, Ph.D., director of the New Iowans Center at the University of Northern Iowa. “Immigrants and refugees are very badly needed labor and also consumers and entrepreneurs.”
In fact, even though Iowa is in the middle of America and not a border state, Steve King’s own district across northwest Iowa is home to many of the giant farms and meatpacking plants that employ recent immigrants. And, they’re not all from Mexico. “Iowa has refugees from 50 different countries, and they speak about 90 different languages,” Grey says.
Ironically, King’s fears of Mexican immigrants come at a time when far fewer of them are crossing the border. “Illegal immigration from the Mexican border is down to a net zero,” says Grey. American’s slow economy since the 2008 recession draws fewer immigrants in search of jobs, and better economic conditions in Mexico mean some are returning to their homeland.
Immigration levels rise and fall with the health of economies, but Grey says that another problem may have a far larger impact on the future of immigration: climate change.
As extreme weather with floods and droughts become more common and disrupt human habitats, and as access to fresh drinking water becomes more difficult, the world could see tens of millions climate refugees. The U.S. and other host countries should get ready. But, don’t expect any help from Steve King. Congressman King, who never lets facts get into the way of his ideology, argues that climate change “is more of a religion than a science,” despite the overwhelming scientific evidence and the climate challenges already experienced in his own state.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Népszabadság, Hungary’s leading daily newspaper, on October 13, 2013.