Immigration: Rights and Wrongs

Immigration policy is a red-hot topic this election cycle. Last Wednesday at Research Unplugged, community members and students discussed the issue with Shoba Wadhia, director of the Penn State School of Law's Center for Immigrants' Rights.

Wadhia began by noting that approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants are estimated to live in the United States. "So, who is this unauthorized immigrant population?" she asked. "Nationwide, they comprise about 5.1 percent of the workforce, and in critical sectors like agriculture and construction, they make up 25 percent of the workforce." Wadhia explained that the solution isn't as simple as just "getting in line," to become a citizen. "There are very few ways for the majority of unauthorized migrants to come to the U.S. legally," she said. These include family relationship, political refugee status, and certain types of employment. Others must apply for citizenship through a lottery system.

"Nationwide, there are approximately four million U.S. citizen children with at least one unauthorized parent," noted Wadhia. The quotas for entry based on family relationships haven't been updated in more than 20 years, so "people who are legally eligible to immigrate to the United States are waiting months, years, and sometimes decades to reunite with family members," she explained.

The basis for United States immigration law is the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). "Congress passed the INA in 1952," said Wadhia. "It's a book that has been called second in complication to the U.S. tax code." Since its passing, the INA has been amended many times. "The most controversial changes have happened during politically volatile moments in U.S. history," such as the Oklahoma City bombing, and the attacks of September 11, 2001. "During these moments—or rather their aftermaths—immigrants became a target of public fear. And from that, laws to limit their public position in the U.S. were enacted. In this way, the laws of immigration cannot be divorced from the politics that drive their creation."

When asked about the chances for positive immigration reform in 2010, Wadhia said she feels the prospects are grim, "largely because vulnerable candidates who may support immigration reform may find it too controversial a topic to represent." However, she hopes that the executive branch will play an active part in improving the situation. "The executive branch really has a lot of authority and jurisdiction that doesn't necessarily require legislation, she said. "There are non-legislative solutions that could be enacted."

"If I may put on my civic engagement hat on for a moment," said Wadhia, "no matter what side of the debate you may fall on, there are a few things you can do." She urged attendees to learn more about the issue and to vote in the November 2nd election.

featuring Penn State English professor and esteemed poet, Robin Becker.

Last Updated November 02, 2010