Sandra Sanchez, Immigrants Voice Program Director

Fall 2009

What’s on your mind these days regarding immigration?

One thing that it’s in my mind is this apparent naïveté on the part of a lot of people, thinking that because the Democrats are in the majority now and we have a Democratic president, that we are ultimately going to have a just immigration reform passed this year. Well, no. I’ve got news for everybody.

It’s not happening like that. Sadly, I have to say, the Democrats have adopted a lot of the same ideas. They are not using the same dehumanizing or even abusive language many Republicans used but they are using the same ideas bounced around by the GOP in recent years regarding immigration reform.

It seems to me this democracy is working only every four years, for a short period of time. And then people get complacent, thinking that, “Oh, it’s going to be OK because I chose the right candidate.” No, that’s not the way democracy works. It’ll be equivalent to say that because they are Democrats, we should extend them a blank check without really doing an analysis to see if their legislative proposals really respond to the reality we’re seeing in our day-to-day work in our communities, with our friends and neighbors.

Also, I’ve noticed that mainstream people still don’t believe the bad things that are happening—home round-ups and abuses in detention centers—until they happen to somebody close to them. It’s like they’re seeing these things as faceless issues versus something real.

How to address both? The political naïveté can be addressed by getting policy updates and analysis on regular basis to our allies and supporters to work with congress members. Immigration reform is not an automatic thing.

Democrats will not offer a much better deal. What they’re proposing so far is not very different than what was discussed in 2007, which we didn’t support, and it’s actually getting worse. In regard to the reality of the issues, we need to get the human stories out so people can put a face to the issues.

 

These days, a lot of people’s top concern is economics. Critics ask why immigrants should be able to come to the U.S. and receive benefits from taxpayers. People are obviously hurting a lot in this economy. How do you address the question of economics vis-à-vis immigrants and immigration reform?

Immigrants are not receiving benefits from other taxpayers, even though they should because they are taxpayers too. I’ve heard allies and supporters say: “Yes, we support immigrant rights, but can we afford it when the economy is so bad?” I would need a couple hours to better answer this question, but in a very simplistic way I would say that all people—and I mean all—are consumers and producers. Immigrants are consumers and producers too. And since we are in a recession right now, you need people spending. Immigrants spend money, and they spend it now.

Immigrants are also very hard working, so they’re in their most productive years, and they are very young. Therefore, they are mostly contributing to this economy. Finally, typically they have not been part of the formal financial system, meaning their savings were not lost. They were not investing in the stock market. They have savings to spend. Where do we want them to spend this money? Here, or somewhere else?

More importantly, in terms of production and consumption, they are very active. Why get rid of them? There’s some hypocrisy we are talking about here. The government is not really coming forward with, and society in general is not accepting it because they believe what anti-immigrant groups have been saying, that is: immigrants are paying taxes. There are more than $560 billion in the Earnings Suspense File of the Social Security Administration, most of which is believed to be contributions of undocumented workers to this system alone.

Do we want to stop that? Or do we want to regularize that? People are afraid that if we regularize that, if we give legal status to these undocumented workers who have been contributing for, in many cases, decades to this system and who cannot claim one penny out of that. The claim is they will claim those benefits, but the truth is that they can’t. If they get a legal status, eventually they will be able to claim benefits but from the time of their legal status on.

So immigrants represent a double win to this country. We are winning in the sense that they have contributed already as taxpayers, they have contributed to the economy as workers, and they have contributed to the economy as consumers. Do we want to lose that? No. I truly believe that if these persons are given the opportunity to regularize their status, they will be able to buy homes. They will be able to buy more cars. They will be able to send their children to institutions of higher learning. And that will definitely be a plus to the economy. It will help us turn around this recession faster than if we don’t.

We need to remember that we have been buying into the lies that immigrants are costly to this economy. Maybe in the short term they represent a cost but that’s because the whole system takes time to catching up. The minute they get here, they start paying taxes, they start contributing.

The catching up from the Federal government to local governments means that there is a cost to local governments at the beginning. But in the long term, after 10 years, and more so as years go by, they are net contributors, more than the average American by about 15-20% more. That is significant! So this is my very simplistic answer to that question.

Wouldn’t even critics agree that immigration reform would eliminate the shadow economy which exploits undocumented workers while skirting taxes?

Yes, and then you can plan the budget. You can use more wisely the money that is right now suspended in the Social Security administration, money that can’t be used as it is because they cannot connect it to any worker.

Why keep in limbo these hundreds of billions of dollars, with more coming, just because we’re not giving them a chance to get a legal identity?

And by the way, having a legal identity is a human right. So, whether you go by the economic stand or you go by the human rights stand, giving a legal status to undocumented immigrants is the right thing to do.

 

Would you please talk about how the Immigrant Safety Network (ISNET) has been a model for organizing? What’s currently going on with ISNET?

Two things are happening. We are providing a training next week for legal volunteers, meaning attorneys and paralegals, to get the proper training, to know what to do in case of another workplace raid. And that is OK.

However, like anything with immigration, which is one of the most active and rapidly changing policy areas in the U.S., things are changing. Now the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) strategy will be that instead of doing workplace raids, the Federal government is going to be doing more law enforcement through E-verify.

E-verify has been a pilot program—I don’t know if you can keep calling something that started 10 years ago a “pilot”—to verify documents for workers to ensure that they have the “right” to work—which is wrong to begin with. After IRCA in 1985—the so called amnesty—the human right to work became a privilege! That’s beyond me, but it’s the reality This e-verify system is unfortunately plagued with errors. It is believed that it may have as many as 68% of mistakes in the database. That’s extremely high. Who would be the most affected by E-verify? Besides immigrants—legally present or not—all workers will b affected particularly women, who may change names due to their marital status.

I ran into a lot of trouble when I remarried. I went from Sandra Sanchez-Miranda to Sandra Sanchez-Naert. This fact created all sorts of problems for me, from changing my driver’s license to changing my passport to buying a plane ticket. Every time I go to check my baggage in, I ran into trouble.

If I move from this job to another job, it’s very likely that there will be a glitch in my name between E-verify’s information reported by Immigration and the Social Security Administration as they cross-reference their

databases. If they are not exactly right, that computer is not going to say:

“Oh, this woman remarried in such and such a year, she’s the same person, just her name is different.” No, it’s going to report a “discrepancy.” And most employers will be discouraged to proceed with the hiring process. That’s a very subtle and hard to prove discrimination, but it has happened to my family members.

People might say, “I don’t care. I am a citizen.” Well, I’m a citizen too. And you’d better care. Especially if you are a woman, because immigrants and women are the populations I can foresee being hugely impacted.

Another example: in my sister’s documents, her legal permanent resident’s card doesn’t have a dash in her last name. She got married, kept her maiden name, then added her husband’s name with a dash. Well, in the immigration documents, it doesn’t have a dash because they are used to Latin American names having two last names, what we know here as one last name. There we use two last names. So they are used to it. So in Immigration’s computer system it’s not a problem.

But the Social Security Administration, for example, they put the dash. So her SS card has the dash, but her legal permanent resident card doesn’t. The system doesn’t recognize that. So the system believes that these are two different people. Now, she’s been having a hell of a time trying to get a job because of that minute discrepancy.

I would say employers in Iowa are pretty good. Not so in Arizona. In Iowa, they give it a fair try. They say, “Why don’t you go back to the Social Security Administration to correct this because the computer is telling me there’s a discrepancy?” But there’s no discrepancy. It’s just a dash! “Well, go change it.” The SSA doesn’t recognize that as any kind of mistake or problem. “That’s the name you gave us. That’s the card. There’s no mistake here. Go to Immigration so they can put a dash.” Then immigration says,

“No, we don’t have to make any changes because your name is correct!”

Correcting such a discrepancy is a nightmare if you eventually would want to go through the legal proceedings to get a completely new card. It will take months and hundreds of dollars. It might mean you’d be unemployed for months. That’s not good!

What’s ISNET doing in regards to this?

ISNET is educating and organizing communities that have been getting ready to respond in case of a raid, to now invest their energies in communicating with their congress members to say E-verify is not the answer. We really need comprehensive and just immigration reform in which all workers have the same rights.

Get rid of this stupid thing about employer sanctions. In reality they are not sanctioning the employer, they are sanctioning employees. They are not sanctioning only undocumented workers, they’re sanctioning all workers.

And at some point it’s going to catch up with everybody. Why do we have to go through that for 10-15 years until they realize that it’s not a good idea?

They keep saying that they are going to correct the problems in the system. But the problem is not the system. The problem is the idea of making work a privilege, instead of recognizing it as a human right! That’s where the problem is. We need to help them see that E-verify and employers sanctions are not the solution. It will be more of the same.

At the core of this problem is the idea that work is a privilege. Why would work be a privilege? Why? I need to pose that question to Congress. Why do you think that work is a privilege? Why an employer needs to ensure that you can enjoy that privilege? Will you tell me how else am I supposed to support my family if I don’t work? A privilege is something beyond what a basic human need is, isn’t it? It’s like a luxury. When did we make work a luxury? It’s like saying that life is a privilege.

There’s something fundamentally wrong with the idea of making work a privilege. It was wrong back in 1985, and it is wrong now. We’re talking about something that took place more than 20 years ago, and we haven’t corrected it. We’ve made it worse. True, at the beginning it was impacting mostly undocumented immigrants, but how does that story go? First they were coming for the Jews, and I didn’t say anything. Then they were coming for whoever was related however indirectly to Jews, and I didn’t say anything. And then one night they came for me, and there was no one to speak for me.

Well we as a society were not speaking for those workers, those undocumented immigrants back then. And we’re not speaking now. Now this wrongful concept is catching up with us, all of us, citizens or not, foreign-born or not. It’s catching up with all of us because we were not speaking loud enough back then. We need to speak louder, saying no. Everify is wrong!

ISNET will be directing its energy towards that, making public the fact that now, the government is not doing workplace raids anymore, it’s doing home raids. And those are very silent. They are not getting any publicity, and yet people are disappearing. And their family members don’t know where on earth they are. And as we saw with the story of Mrs. Zelaya (see http://www.afsc.org/iowa/ht/a/GetDocumentAction/i/81400), she was one of those persons who had been raided in her home, was deported, tried to come back and lost her life!

These are the connections we need to be making. It’s happening close, it’s hitting home. Now they are knocking at our door, and we need to direct our energies there. Yes, ISNET is in need of rapidly changing strategies to deal with what’s happening now.

 

You spoke earlier about employer sanctions hurting workers rather than employers. Why is that?

The original concept of employer sanctions was to discourage employers from hiring undocumented workers. Well, technically, they are not hiring undocumented workers. What happened was that people were forced to use false documents in order to work. So at the end, whichever way you look at it, for a company, a fine, even if it is a stiff fine, that is a write-off for the company. It’s a cost they can pass on to the consumer.

But for a worker unable to work…who’s been sanctioned here, the employer or the worker? I am a citizen. Let’s say that I leave my job at AFSC and go look for employment somewhere else. Because of that little dash I have in my name now, and the use of E-verify, I may have trouble getting work.

Who’s being punished? A $1200 fine for an employer is nothing. For a worker not being able to work is huge. These are not employer sanctions. These are workers sanctions.

Anything else to add?

Please do not be complacent. We really need to pay attention to what Congress is doing and what both parties are proposing, using a magnifying glass. Hear beyond the words they are using, and look over these legislative proposals. So far they are not good. What we’ve heard is bad, and we can expect worse to come!

For more information, contact Sandra at SSanchez@afsc.org.