A New Class of Felons?

A New Class of Felons?

Proposed Federal legislation that would make undocumented immigrants and those who help them a felony could affect Mount Vernon residents.

A man arrives at a bus station in Mount Vernon. He entered the country legally with a tourist visa. Several years later, the visa has expired. The man is living in a small apartment and working for a landscaper at $10 an hour. Twice a week, he attends evening classes in English as a Second Language (ESL), in a classroom at a social outreach organization.

This story is a common one, but if a new Federal bill that has passed the House of Representatives and is being considered by the Senate becomes law, the story will have a new twist. It will be about felons, at least three of them: the immigrant, his employer, and his ESL teacher.

On March 7, opponents of this legislation held a rally in front of the Capitol building. They say the bill is designed to circumvent existing law, which requires an undocumented immigrant to commit a felony before being deported.

Hundreds of Mount Vernon residents were involved in the rally, according to Leah Tenorio, Hispanic Outreach coordinator at Good Shepherd Catholic Church. Although she had publicized the rally in the church’s Spanish language bulletin, she said she was surprised by the size of the crowd of Hispanic immigrants she encountered at the Huntington Metro Station, all on their way to the Capitol.

“There was a feeling of solidarity,” among the people at the rally, she said, a feeling bolstered by the unexpectedly large turnout. She described people carrying signs saying “We are not criminals” and “No human being can be illegal.”

Tenorio and Mary Jane Masciola, the director of Social Justice Ministry at Good Shepherd, discussed the work their church did with the Hispanic population in Mount Vernon. “We want to get beyond the charity issue.” Masciola said. “There is a difference between charity and justice. Charity is filling a direct need whereas justice is going deeper to find the reason why, which is often more difficult and requires a greater commitment.”

“Our immigration system definitely needs to be reformed.” Tenorio said. But HR 4437, the immigration bill introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis), is “saying ‘the immigrants are the problem,’ and not the system that brings them over and relies on their work.”

Adds Masciola, 4437 “is very simplistic. They need to look at total reform.”

Both women endorsed legislation introduced by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass) calling for “earned legalization.” They describe this as being a middle road between total amnesty and total criminalization, allowing undocumented immigrants to “earn” their way to legal residency through paying taxes, holding down steady jobs, and obeying the law for a certain period of years.

“Compassionate people will be stifled if this bill passes,” said Masciola, referring to social services workers, as well as employers, whose activities would become illegal. She related a scenario about an undocumented person whose primary income is cleaning houses. “The people who hire her start to think ‘hmmm… I could get in trouble,’ and fire her.” After losing employment, there will be no county or private services for that person to turn too.

“The biggest danger of the bill is to reinforce people’s attitudes that if you are a certain status or race then you don’t deserve basic needs, or even jobs,” Tenario said. “There is a demand for certain services, and that demand is causing people to immigrate. The theme of the rally was “We are a nation of immigrants.”

George Taplin, director of the Virginia Chapter of Minuteman Civilian Corps and president of the Herndon branch of the group, is a supporter of the bill for the same reason Tenorio and Masciola oppose it, because “it is designed to make it more difficult for people residing in this country illegally to function in this country illegally.”

He agrees that immigration is one of the most important aspects of the United States. The Minutemen “are not against the Latino community. We are a nation built by immigrants. People coming legally can only bolster this country.” But he said a distinction must be drawn between “legal and illegal immigrants".

Taplin draws no distinction between amnesty and earned legalization, saying that both would essentially legitimize a crime that had been committed. He drew an analogy: “a burglar steals a television from an empty house. Three weeks later, the police find him watching that television in his home. Should we allow him to keep it?.. The illegal alien is the burglar. And what he’s done is come into this country and stolen a job.”

And, said Taplin, undocumented immigrants steal more than jobs. “They come out here and steal taxes from the taxpayer. I know that is hard [for American citizens] to connect, but the illegal alien is unable to connect that. They come out here and steal taxes from the taxpayer.” The “life long goal,” he asserted, of “the culture south of the border” is “to not pay taxes.”

Taplin explained that the Minutemen were founded in Arizona, with a focus on borders. He said the Virginia chapter exists because of the realization that an estimated twelve to twenty million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States is “creating a huge problem.”

“The only solution,” he says, “is to cut them off completely from jobs.”

He blames employers who hire laborers for below-market wages without inquiring if they are legal residents. “It’s not that Americans don’t want the job, but if you’re an employer with the choice of hiring two Americans at $20 an hour, or two Mexicans at $10 an hour plus no taxes, you are going to hire Mexicans.” That practice, he says, should be a crime because it undercuts businesses that obey the law and cheats the government of tax revenue.

Taplin said he believes the bill will not be passed in its current form, “but it attacks the area that needs to be attacked” by putting responsibility on the businesses that employ undocumented workers.

He said he sympathizes with undocumented immigrants who would automatically be classified as felons. “I understand how they feel about becoming illegal and being put in jail just for existing.” But he believes it is impossible to criminalize the hiring of undocumented workers without criminalizing the workers themselves.

PROGRESO HISPANO is a social services organization on the Richmond Highway that provides ESL and citizenship classes as well as employing a full-time paralegal to help immigrants navigate the Byzantine legalization process of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

This immigration expert, Karin Yanez, estimates about 15% of her clients are undocumented. If the bill passes, Yanez says, she would be breaking the law by helping them try to become legal residents.

Cristina Schoendorf is Progreso Hispano’s Executive Director. “The bottom line,” she says, “is people are going to come to this country and work. There is work for them and that’s why they’re coming. The problem is not going away.”

She says that in Mount Vernon “the immigrant population is growing. People continue to move south looking for affordable housing. With all the growth on Route 1 there is a lot of opportunity. There are help-wanted signs everywhere.” This is good for the district’s economy. “Look at all the Latino businesses on Route 1. [Immigrants] work and spend money just like everyone else.” In addition, “they are an integral part of many faith communities.”

Captain Michael Kline, commander of the Mount Vernon Police station, said that the department does not factor residency status into its responses. “[Undocumented immigrants] are people. And if they need help, we give them help. If they are victims of a crime, we’ll investigate. If they commit a crime, we’ll arrest them.” He said that currently the police in the district, “make the reports to immigration when we arrest them or when we have reason to believe they are involved in a crime,” if they think the person is here illegally. He declined to conjecture on how this bill, if passed, might affect these practices.

The presence of immigrants seeking work has led to controversy in other parts of Northern Virginia, but in Mount Vernon, Kline says, “We don’t have the daily pick-up sites… We are not getting any complaints about loitering or trespassing.”

Keary Kincannon is the minister of Rising Hope United Methodist Church, which runs a clothes closet and a food pantry that gives enough food for several meals to 150 families (about 650 people) every week. Many of these families are Hispanic, and some are probably undocumented. “If this happens [the bill becomes law], I guess we’re all going to jail,” Kincannon said, referring to himself and unspecified others. “One of the things we were very clear about is the gospel cannot be limited to borders… We don’t ask anyone whether they are worthy, where they came from, if they have a green card… We’re going to help them regardless. You can’t put those kinds of bounds on what we are trying to do.”

“I would consciously violate this law to push the issue and show the injustice of it, as a stand of disobedience to obey a higher law.”

But Cheri Zeman, Director of United Community Ministries (UCM), which offers a workforce development program, helping people get jobs by meeting with employment counselors, as well as classes in English as a Second Language (ESL), said that her organization did not have the option of committing a crime. UCM has 109 employees whose jobs would be put at risk.

In order to avoid committing a crime, UCM would be put under an administrative strain in order to identify the undocumented immigrants. It would be an “economic burden,” Zeman said, “I don’t know how we would do it.”

Zeman argued that criminalizing non-profits serving immigrant populations would harm the entire community. “Non-profits fill the gaps in our communities. They help people become productive citizens. The county depends on us doing what we do in order to help communities thrive and make them safe… In essence [H.R. 4437] prohibits faith organizations and non-profits to do the work the county needs done.”

Like nearly every other person interviewed, Zeman acknowledged that immigration reform must occur. “There is a call to action. People want movement towards reform. No one is saying that we don’t want that… but [supporters of this law] recognize only the most negative aspects of the [reform] continuum, without fully forming opinions of how they affect communities as a whole.”

Although Taplin disagrees with Zeman’s analysis, he expressed support for a change in the status quo. He called for the community organizations on opposing ends of the spectrum to “come together and have a dialogue, find common ground that we can agree on.”

Seeking to Begin Again

Undocumented Immigrant Begins Anew

Juan is an undocumented immigrant. Speaking through an interpreter, he asked that only his first name be used. He was initially willing to name the Central American country where he was raised, but several days after the interview he changed his mind because he believed this information would allow people in the community to recognize him. He explained that the Hispanic community in Mount Vernon is very close knit. He laughed when the interpreter said that most Hispanic immigrants cannot read the Gazette because it is in English.

Juan has lived in the United States since September of 1999. In his native country he was a licensed accountant, with a certificate in business administration and only one year left to earn his bachelor’s degree. But his company reorganized and his position was eliminated. He found himself jobless in an economy where jobs were scarce under the very best circumstances, and businesses were not interested in hiring someone of his age. He was forty-five.

Juan arrived in the United States on an airplane, carrying a tourist visa. He had no intention of returning to his homeland.

Juan said he had no illusions about the lifestyle he was choosing. He had seen many immigrants in his homeland who were fleeing from conflicts in other Central American countries. “The hardest thing for an immigrant is to leave your country, your customs, your culture, to go to a new country to make a living. Immigrants in all countries and all times, back to the time of the Bible, have been treated poorly,” he said. “People don’t migrate for pleasure but because they have to.”

Juan came to Mount Vernon because he had family who already lived in the area. His first job was loading and unloading containers of merchandise at a discount clothing store. He would go on to work in painting, construction, fumigation, and landscaping. “It’s very difficult to come. But it’s not to hard to find work if you are willing to accept any kind of work.”

In January, 2000 he was able to bring his own family: his wife and three children, to join him. Since arriving, Juan says, his family has been lucky in health. There is no insurance. When one family member did have to go to the hospital, Juan says the family paid the $4,000 bill in installments, $20 per month.

Juan’s wife is now working as a babysitter in other peoples’ homes. Juan’s two youngest children attended West Potomac High School. Both are now in their first year of college in Virginia. But, Juan says, they will have to drop out because he must pay out-of-state tuition.

“If we had the opportunity to make ourselves legal, we would have,” Juan said. He said he has been paying state and federal taxes since he arrived six years ago. He says that paying income taxes is common among undocumented immigrants, because it strengthens their chances of being accepted in the legalization process.

On one visit to a local accounting firm for help with his taxes, the owner discovered Juan was an accountant. Juan was hired to work with other Hispanic clients, and told that his employer would sponsor his legalization paperwork with the INS. He was paid seven dollars an hour and worked for the company for three years. Whenever he asked about the status of his legalization paperwork, he was told that it was being processed. After three years of waiting for evidence that any paperwork was being done on his behalf, Juan recently quit his job. He said he will try to start his own accounting firm, though he is unsure whether he will be able to complete the paperwork necessary to start a business.

The proposed legislation will make Juan and his employers felons. “It will complicate things for people who are trying to work within this system,” Juan said. “All of us are illegal. All of us are bad. We’ll all be measured by the same stick.”

Juan says that Hispanic immigrants with higher education are active with immigration advocacy on the internet. While answering questions, he frequently riffled through the print-out pages he had brought from these websites. But, he says, “Our hands are tied. Because we are not documented, we have no political power.” If HR 4437 passes, “there will be millions of people living in America with no rights, like other groups have in the past.”

If the law passes, and millions of new felons are created overnight, Juan said that tracking them down will not be difficult. “If you want to find the immigrants, wake up at 4:00 in the morning and see who is going to work.”