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Ellie Kinnaird: A practical immigration solution

March 14, 2014 

A January survey of Mexicans who moved back to Mexico found they have no intention of returning to the U.S.

This is noteworthy, because many family members remain in the U. S. and those returning home reported a positive experience here. The people we met on my trip to Mexico sponsored by the Center for International Understanding conveyed strongly that they loved their families, their country and their culture. They came to the U.S. only to find work to support their families. So perhaps it should not be a surprise that they are now reclaiming that love for family, culture and country and going back home.

For years many Americans have been ambivalent about Hispanic workers. Some saw them as invaders. But many companies were happy to hire cheap labor during a labor shortage when many Americans didn’t want to work in the fields, chicken processing plants, or service and construction industries. Some businesses even encouraged illegal migration.

In Puebla, where many of our North Carolina immigrants emigrated from, a poultry processing plant erected a billboard saying “Welcome to Siler City – Come to the U.S. For Jobs.” Some plants sent trucks down to bring the workers back.

And businesses failed on a grand scale to check for immigration status. At a school we visited, when we asked how many students had family members in the U.S. or who planned to go there themselves. Almost every hand went up. We saw homes in villages built with money Mexican workers sent money home. The families entertained us with great pride in these simple, cement-block homes. Notably absent: fathers. They expected the fathers to return home to the houses their U.S. wages had built. And maybe now they are.

In addition to the large, low-wage workforce, there were hidden benefits to the U.S. Social Security is solvent seven years beyond the projected date of going broke because so many workers had fake Social Security numbers that the fund accumulated huge sums that couldn’t be paid on the ghost accounts.

But when our economy soured, a throw-away attitude prevailed and a backlash began. First, the legislature decided to deny driver’s licenses, greatly impairing workers’ ability to get to work and necessary life needs. Meanwhile the 287(g) law and Secure Communities programs allowed law enforcement to pick up large numbers of Hispanics on minor and often pre-textual charges, collect a fee for each person jailed, and then contact the federal government for likely deportation. Even Orange County joined the program.

ALIPAC (Americans for Legal Immigration PAC) was formed by a legislator’s intern and grew into an organization spewing forth hate and venom with the goal of driving out all undocumented workers from North Carolina.

Years ago, I suggested a practical solution to the ebb and flow of workers needed in the U.S. that would balance the need for Mexicans to find work. We have open borders with Canada, with workers going across the borders of both countries while living in the other. We could do the same with Mexico. We have NAFTA for goods, why not NAFTA for workers? It could be solved by a simple system. Each Mexican worker who wanted to look for work in the U.S. could apply for a Social Security card. The number would be preceded by an “N” for non-citizen. If there is work, they could stay, if not return home, perhaps to try at a later time.

Of course, the whole immigration problem will solve itself as the large number of Hispanic children born in the U.S. become full citizens of voting age. And, they will vote.

Ellie Kinnaird is a former state senator and Carrboro mayor. You can reach her at ekinnaird2@gmail.com

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