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Immigration in Happy Valley

by on June 16, 2014 6:15 AM

The theme of the week appears to be immigration.

With news coverage of the recent escalation in number of immigrants, particularly unattended children, coming into the United States illegally in the southwestern border states, Happy Valley had its own immigration headline.

Local, state and federal authorities, including the Homeland Security division of Customs and Immigration, conducted a "Federal Enforcement Operation" at several Asian restaurants in town last week and reportedly detained a dozen or so adults in what was apparently some kind of immigration sting.

Along those same lines, political pundits are pointing to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's stance on immigration as the reason Cantor lost last week's primary election in Virginia. Immigration policy and "reform" continue to be a contentious political issue that offers another subject area for partisan hostility and debate.

Who and how and whether or not people from another country get to live in our country is a hot topic that seems to be getting hotter.

For the record, I was born in the United States but my distant ancestors came from Ireland, England and and Germany. My husband's immigration story is a bit more recent. Great Grandma Toth (who I was fortunate enough to meet) came to the United States from Hungary when she was 12.

As a child in a strange country where she didn't understand the language and who missed her parents, it is not at all surprising that she soon went back to Hungary. She later returned to America as a young woman and married another Hungarian immigrant who she met through her sponsor family.

He introduced himself through the mail which included a picture and a letter with a marriage proposal. They built a life in Windber, Pennsylvania where he worked in the coal mines and she raised their children, the oldest daughter named Helen. Helen was my husband's grandmother and Great-Grandma to my kids.

My halupkis are good but they aren't quite the same as Grandma Toth's or Grandma Kleban's. I'm still working on those darn nut rolls.

Our country was founded on the principles of immigration. People from foreign lands fleeing religious oppression and seeking a better way of life are drawn here. Since our beginning, people have looked to America as a land of opportunity and of freedoms that one can only dream about in other countries.

Historically, we have at times welcomed and even encouraged people to "come on in." At other times, we have set up barriers for entry depending on what is happening economically, politically and socially. Early immigration policy was left to individual states where immigration decisions were often made because of need (i.e. underpopulated states on the frontier of early America needed and wanted newcomers).

The first real federal legislation barring access was ironically the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which was enacted because of concerns that the Chinese immigrant's perceived willingness to work for lower wages.

I wonder how the wages of the people pulled out of the restaurants on Westerly Parkway compare to others.

Individuals from other countries  and their impact on the economy -- through their willingness to work service jobs for lower wages -- are a big part of today's conversation about immigration reform.

It's hard to believe after all of this time we haven't figured it out.

Since elected officials from both political parties have either avoided or ignored or blocked real immigration reform, the problem has spiraled out of control. The recent headlines about children as young as three entering the United States unaccompanied by a family member and in need of basic humanitarian services makes rational decision making about immigration reform very difficult.

The recent influx of tens of thousands of immigrants, many of whom are unaccompanied children, illegally crossing the border from Mexico and other countries in Latin America was not likely a consideration to the authors of early immigration policy. Housing children on military bases, away from friends and family, without a long term plan for placement, education, acculturation, time to play and at burgeoning cost to taxpayers is painting a new picture of the people who are coming to America with dreams – for themselves or for their children – of better lives.

And then there is the nasty side of immigration. Disease. Criminal activity. Trafficking of children and adults over the borders for money or for other illegal purposes. Terrorism. I'm 100 percent sure that the early framers of immigration policy would not have predicted "visitors" living and learning among us who would eventually hijack and fly planes full of people into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in southwestern Pennsylvania.

So what can we do?

There needs to be a twofold plan. First, we need to address how people are getting physical access. I have been through border stations between the US and Canada and at airport re-entry in several major cities. That process seems pretty tight.

The obvious issue is with the borders that aren't protected by fencing or other means of limiting entrance. How can we feasibly manage the miles of unguarded borders? There has to be someone within immigration or border control or engineering or architecture expertise who has ideas on how to manage the illegal crossings. Whether it be with wire fencing, bricks and mortar or some technological means, stopping the unlimited access is crucial to maintaining the integrity of the immigration process.

The second part of the conversation – what to do about the people who are already here – can only happen after border access is addressed. The development of a reasonable plan for those who have come here illegally but who are working, contributing members of our society has to be founded on compliance with access policy and practices.

Attempting to mop up the mess without addressing the leak just doesn't make sense. There have been some strong proposals put forth from both political parties that address a sequenced series of application, sponsorship, waiting periods and fees that make sense in assisting those individuals and families who are part of our communities to remain so.

An unconditional system of forgiveness or amnesty in which those who came here illegally are allowed to stay without consequence or conditions - the end justifying the means – is not the American way of either our justice system or our immigration history.

The faces of those children lined up and sleeping under foil blankets in holding pens or of parents and families willing to put so much at risk to get here – and get away from there – reminds us that we are dealing with human beings.

Employees who have served us lunch or made us dinner right here in Centre County bring the issue of immigration very close to home.

Our approach to immigration reform should be human as well.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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