Illegal Immigration Analysis

Host Debbie Elliott speaks with Roberto Suro of the Pew Hispanic Center about what various states around the country are doing to deal with illegal immigration, as Congress struggles to come up with federal immigration reform.

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DEBBIE ELLIOT, host:

To find out more about how states are trying to crack down on illegal immigration, we turn now to Roberto Suro, Director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a non-partisan research center. Welcome.

Mr. ROBERTO SURO (Director, Pew Hispanic Center): Good to be here.

ELLIOT: Mr. Suro, let's talk a little bit more about Georgia. Why has immigration become such a priority there?

Mr. SURO: Georgia's a state that its population and its economy has grown very quickly in the last twenty years, and that's drawn a lot of immigrant workers. But immigrant workers are not entirely new to Georgia. The agricultural sector there has long depended on migrants and a number of illegal workers among them.

And interestingly, it's been the business community there as in many other states that has often pressed the authorities to back off. It calls to mind an incident in 1998 when the Immigration Service swooped down on the Vidalia onion harvest as it was underway and rounded up a bunch of workers very quickly, within a matter of days, The rest of the agricultural workforce kind of skedaddled. And the farmers, very worried that their harvest was gonna rot in the fields, raised an uproar, and you had most of the Georgia Congressional delegation here and Washington complain loudly enough that the Immigration Service backed off.

And so there's a tension here between business communities that want to hire cheap, disposable, easy labor for low-skilled jobs and governments that are concerned about the costs of that population.

ELLIOT: Give us a rundown of what we're talking about. What are some of the proposals that states are putting forth?

Mr. SURO: Well, they include measures to restrict access to healthcare, to any kind of public services, to restrict the children of illegal aliens from going to public colleges, measures like this one that sort of seek ways to raise revenue, and occasionally measures to crack down on employment, although those don't seem to be advancing this much. And there are also a number of measures to have local police agencies enforce immigration laws. That's one of the trends we're seeing around the country as well.

ELLIOT: What do you think will be the effect of some of these laws? We heard in that Georgia piece that there were concerns that somehow now you're going to have Western Union clerks acting as de facto immigration agents.

Mr. SURO: We have some experience as a nation with this kind of a policy, in that since 1986 it's been unlawful to employ somebody who doesn't have legal status here. And employers are supposed to check papers and they're supposed to keep copies of people's documents. And that law has proved virtually impossible to enforce. Because employers can say, well, the papers looked good to me. And it's very hard to require ordinary people to be immigration agents, and that's been the experience with employer sanctions.

In this case, you're not even talking about personnel departments or anything formally engaged in something like employment where at least you're writing down information about somebody. Currently, if you provide a name and address, you can send a wire transfer. But you're talking about, you know, 7-11 clerks and bakers and butchers and liquor store salesmen and people at gas stations having to look at papers and determine whether they're real or not. As I said, the experience with employer sanction is that that's very difficult to pull off.

ELLIOT: Another thing we heard in the Georgia piece was a lawmaker telling his colleagues to just step back for a minute. That somehow the effect of states coming in and doing these things makes this piecemeal, state by state policy that's just not workable.

Mr. SURO: And the other thing that he said that is quite notable is that there is, he said let's wait and put pressure on Congress. And there's no question that Congress is feeling the pressure from the states and the House of Representatives passed a bill that has a variety of measures aimed at boosting enforcement, and the Senate is expected to take up some kind of measures, really in just a matter of a few weeks.

And so it may be that a lot of this activity that we see at the state level will prompt something in Washington, and maybe the states will then feel they can back off, I suppose.

ELLIOTT: Robert Suro is the director of the Pew Hispanic Center. Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. SURO: You're very welcome, thank you.

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