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Immigration: Hot-button political, economic, moral issue

ADON TAFT Guest columnist
Published:   |   Updated: May 10, 2013 at 12:50 PM

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Editor's note: In part two tomorrow, the debate over the cost and other consequences of the presence

of illegal immigrants.

Immigration - both legal and illegal - is the hot-button political issue - and some would say moral issue - of the moment. It also has economic implications.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently reported, more than 1.1 million folks from some 200 countries were legally added to our population. By far the most were from Mexico. There were nearly 165,000 of them. Nearly twice that many - 300,000 - came here illegally, and that is down from nearly 800,000 a year in the first five years of this decade, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

It may surprise you to know that the second largest group of immigrants last year - more than 64,000 of them - came from the People's Republic of China. The third largest group of immigrants - more than 57,000 of them - was from India.

Large numbers came from the Caribbean nations and Central and South America. Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Haiti, Jamaica, El Salvador, Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina provided the most. But would you expect that more than 29,000 came from Vietnam, almost 22,000 from Pakistan, nearly 19,000 from Iran and another 12,000 from Iraq and even more than 3,000 from Afghanistan?

With the exception of China, the list of countries from which most illegal aliens come is very similar to the list of countries of origin for legal aliens. Estimates are that about 10 times as many Poles and Portuguese come into our country illegally as come in legally. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants now live here, most of them have been here five years or longer. Some 675,000 of them (down from a million two years ago) live in Florida.

Known as a nation of immigrants from the beginning, in the U.S. today, about eight of every 100 people were foreign born. In Florida, the ratio is almost one of every five residents. In Hernando County, the figure is about the national average, according to the U.S. census.

What is different in Hernando is that the influx of all Hispanics - Cubans, Mexicans, and other Latinos from Central and South America - accounts for far fewer immigrants here than those from other countries. The largest number of foreign-born residents - 15 percent - came from Canada. Another 12 percent came from Germany, 11 percent from Great Britain, 7 percent from Italy, and smaller numbers from Cuba, Jamaica, Mexico and elsewhere.

Only 30,000 of Hernando's population of 171,000 were even born in Florida. Most Hernando residents are from somewhere else -- 50,000 came here from the Northeast states, 25,000 from the Midwest, 15, 000 from Southern states, and a mere 2,000 from the West.

Still, many Americans - perhaps most - want all the illegal residents to be sent home. Others say that would be neither feasible nor fair.

Many church leaders contend that it would be inhumane, splitting up families and unjustly punishing those who have worked hard and made contributions to our society. Some feel it is wrong to keep out anyone wanting to take advantage of the opportunities here that are not available in their homeland.

The Catholic Church, most main-line Protestant churches, and a few Evangelical churches officially share that view.

Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, notes that"the church does not believe that criminal prosecution and deportation of unauthorized immigrants offer a viable, much less humane, approach to the problem."

Calling the 1996 immigration act "evil and unjust "and declaring that "the enforcement thereof results in immediate and insufferable human rights violations, discrimination, and oppression," the United Methodist Church, with 8 million members the largest of the mainline Protestant churches, has declared that "being an undocumented person is not a crime."

Some Catholic and mainline Protestant congregations have declared themselves sanctuaries for the undocumented immigrants. Those churches have prepared materials intended to help the illegal aliens avoid deportation.

But most ordinary members of religious denominations disagree with their leaders on the immigration issue. According to a Zogby poll last year, 78 percent of Catholics blame lack of enforcement of existing laws rather than unjust immigration laws for the large numbers of illegal immigrants in this country. The same percentage of mainline Protestants share that view. Among born-again Protestant groups, led by the nation's largest Protestant denomination, the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, 85 percent of the men and women in the pews blame inadequate enforcement as do 60 percent of Jews.

The fact that the undocumented people broke our immigration laws is obvious. But aside from that, why is their presence here so controversial? Before considering those issues it is necessary to understand that there are several ways to immigrate to the United States legally.

The easiest is to have a family member - a parent, a spouse, or a child - who already is a citizen. In that case you can get a Green Card, which qualifies you as a permanent resident, and enter the country almost immediately. After holding that Green Card for three years (in the case of a spouse) or for 5 years otherwise, a person can apply to become a citizen. Of course, the applicant has to pass the language and civics tests. Depending on what country you come from, the whole process can take anywhere from 12 to 28 years.

Secondly, if you are the spouse or child of a green card holder, you can immigrate to this country after a wait that depends on your country of origin. To become a naturalized citizen, the process usually takes up to 20 years.

Another way to legally immigrate is to have a college degree with a special skill that an American employer is looking for. If the employer offers you a job, is willing to pay $8,000 to $10,000 in legal fees to prove that you have the skill he needs and obtains an H1-B style visa for you, you can live and work here with your non-immigrant visa. You then can get a green card in five or six years and, if you want to, you can become a citizen in another 6 to 10 years.

You also can immigrate here within the law if you are a businessman/entrepreneur with about a million dollars to invest. You can get a green card and have a permanent resident status in about 18 months. If you want, you then can apply for citizenship in five or six years.

Finally, if you are a scientist in another country working on a project that the U.S. government considers to be very important to the United States, you might get a special exemption and become either a legal resident or even an American citizen the next day! Visas for students and temporary workers who ostensibly have no interest in becoming citizens also are available in a relatively short span time.

In most cases the common factor is that it takes what seems to be a really long time. Critics of the immigration system and immigrant advocates insist it takes much too long and really is unfair.

Adon Taft retired in Brooksville after 48 years as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Miami Herald.

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