Fairfield Now - Fall 2008
The Fairfield University community weighs in
By Nina Riccio
It's estimated that there are 12 million people living in the U.S. illegally, and there are many voices within the country calling for tougher laws to regulate this flow - voices that grow louder as we approach a Presidential election. Fairfield Now asked three members of the Fairfield University community - each with a different area of expertise - what needs to be considered in any discussion of further social policy regarding illegal immigration as far as economics, social, and human rights are concerned.
The Economics of Immigration
Dr. Mark LeClair in one of Bridgeport's increasingly diverse neighborhoods.
By Dr. Mark S. LeClair, professor of economics. He was the co-coordinator of Fairfield's 2005 migration/immigration conference. Dr. LeClair teaches a service-learning class in conjunction with the International Institute in Bridgeport.
There is no question that immigration - whether legal or illegal - on a scale seen in the U.S. causes seismic shifts in sectors of the economy. Taken together, however, many of the negative consequences are balanced with the positive.
For example, both legal and illegal immigrants may place increased economic pressure on communities through the use of local services, such as schools. Conversely, immigrants plug gaps in the labor market. Americans simply do not aspire to pick fruit or vegetables all day at low wages. Despite the rhetoric, the U.S. government openly tolerates the presence of these workers, and little or no enforcement of employment restrictions has taken place.
For example, it's common for many illegal immigrants to use the same Social Security number (the record is 81!), and little is done until an employer is found to be aggressively abusing the system. By allowing both legal and illegal immigration, the U.S. has largely avoided some of the problems associated with the rapid aging of the population now taking place in Europe and Japan. For instance, illegal immigrants pay into the Social Security system, helping keep it afloat, yet will never draw on those funds.
Some Americans worry that the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. may worsen localized problems with unemployment, particularly during this current economic slowdown, and produce downward pressure on wages for low-skilled workers. However, data suggests this latter impact is minor, with approximately a 2.4 percent reduction in earnings. What is true is that illegal immigrants are more likely to send remittances back to their home countries, which can be viewed as a drain on the U.S. economy.
In a country that is nearly entirely comprised of immigrants or their descendants, immigration has become a significant political issue partly due to perceived differences in the current wave of arrivals (it has to be remembered that earlier waves of Irish and Italians also generated similar concerns). This round of immigrants seems less integrated into society and, in fact, many intend to be in the U.S. only for a defined period of time. It is common for illegal immigrants to work extreme hours at very low wages in order to support themselves and to remit funds back home. Such a situation nearly guarantees that integration, in terms of language, culture, and economics, will be delayed. The legislative response to the situation is likely to make things worse. Whether it is the Senate bill, which supports a guest worker program, or the House bill, which turns all illegal immigrants into felons, the result will be less integration and more problems in the U.S. labor market.
The Catholic Commitment to Educating Immigrants.
Fr. Rick Ryscavage: "Catholic universities ... could become the front line for the interdisciplinary study of migration."
By the Rev. Rick Ryscavage, S.J., director of the University's Center for Faith and Public Life and former director, Jesuit Refugee Services.
By the end of the 19th century, there were 63 Catholic colleges and universities in this country, schools founded and funded by first or second-generation immigrants. These Catholic institutions became instruments for preserving Catholic intellectual tradition while preparing new generations of students for civic life in America.
The colleges also provided important avenues for the socialization of immigrants. In fact, one of the great achievements of Catholic higher education was the creation of a cadre of Catholic intellectual and social leaders not far removed from the immigrant experience. Today, these Catholic descendants of immigrants often ignore present-day immigrants.
Now, as we look at the 21st century, we find the U.S. facing another influx of immigrants, and most come from countries with large Catholic populations. But in today's climate, the response of the Catholic colleges to these new immigrants can be considered tepid. Because of high private school tuition, most Catholic universities and colleges today are educating middle- and upper-income Americans.
At the other end of the spectrum, undocumented students pose a special challenge when, legally cut off from public scholarships and in-state tuition, they must forgo tertiary education even when they are at the top of their graduating high school class. Some of the brightest and most hard-working high school students are undocumented and therefore ineligible for public scholarships.
Unlike public universities, private ones can legally offer scholarships to these students. Is it unrealistic to suggest the creation of a national Catholic endowment of scholarships for the undocumented?
The Catholic social values that our schools stand for - protecting human dignity, enhancing the common good, promoting human solidarity, taking the side of the poor - must be inculcated through teaching, research, and reflection, not through institutional lobbying. In fact, Catholic universities, if they worked together, could become the front line for the interdisciplinary study of migration.
Migration is all about decisions made by humans. The ultimate test for Catholic colleges and universities will lie with the young immigrants themselves. If schools reach out to them and help Americans understand them, the new immigrant will bring the gift of renewed life to Catholic higher education for the new century.
In Bahrain, migrant workers also face inequities
Aamina Awan '07 meets with students in Bahrain.
By Aamina Awan '07, a Fulbright scholar teaching in Bahrain and researching women's economic empowerment.
My experiences during my junior year abroad in Spain and now, living in Bahrain, have opened my eyes to the fact that immigration - legal or otherwise - is not a uniquely American problem.
Bahrain is a wealthy Gulf nation where the number of expatriates is approaching the number of local Arabs. Many of these expatriates are labor workers from South Asia. Most enter the Persian Gulf countries on work visas and have the proper documentation, but there are some who enter and then flee from their employer and are considered runaways and illegal immigrants. Based upon my observations as a Fulbright in the Persian Gulf region, I have found that some companies or sponsors will even confiscate their employees' passports upon arrival in the country in order to prevent them from leaving without the sponsor's permission. In many cases, the worker is abused by the sponsor and subjected to poor working and living conditions.
I asked my Bahraini students at the University of Bahrain whether or not migrant workers are considered second-class citizens. All were unanimous that the immigrants' social standing appears to be inferior to those of Bahrainis, and that the living and working conditions of migrant workers are grave issues that should be addressed. Many of the immigrants, for example, live in labor camps with hundreds of cots lined up, poor kitchen facilities, and barely enough water. Just as in U.S., there are jobs that legal and illegal migrant workers do in Bahrain and Moroccan immigrants do in Spain that local citizens would not even imagine doing.
Recently, there was an article in the Bahrain Tribune (a widely popular English newspaper) noting that some Bahraini companies had violated labor laws by having employees work from noon until 4 p.m. in the scorching heat. Summertime in Bahrain is extremely hot - 114 degrees Fahrenheit is not unusual - so laboring in that heat is downright dangerous. A Bahraini would never be subjected to such abuse.
The United States is a melting pot of diversity, and Americans in general have made progress towards accepting the cultural differences of others and enabling labor laws that protect workers. By setting a strong and just policy on the illegal immigration issue, the United States can serve as a model for other countries to follow.