As the immigration issue heats up, I recall my own time spent as an illegal alien. Now I don't pretend I had to flee my home country to feed my family, but I did end up in a foreign country needing to feed myself and without the means to get home. So I went to work.
I found a job at a restaurant/bar as a line cook. The pay was about a buck-fifty an hour (50 1997 Czech Koruna). I knew the pay was crap, but I wasn't really in a position to argue. My employer took a risk by hiring me, but my hiring was not without it's benefits for her. Quite simply, illegal employees don't create a tax burden. No payroll tax, no social security, no health insurance. Eventually I had to pay a portion of my wages in "tax" back to my employer because the Czech employees felt slighted that the illegals were taking home more money, which was true. They should have given that money to the Czech employees, but of course they didn't.
So despite the horrible pay (usually about 120 bucks for a 50 hour week), and horrible hours (I worked 5 days a week. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday from 6pm until 6am, then Saturday and Sunday 8am until 4pm), it wasn't so bad. My employer didn't even know my last name (and spelled my first name in phonetic Czech), I had no listing, no cell phone, no junk mail. I was officially off the grid.
Eventually I went home, and then returned in good financial standing a year later. I worked about a year, and then ran my own business as an illegal alien. Eventually, I got my papers, but it was no easy task. Here is what I had to do...
1. Give a reason for my stay: In my case to run my business. This is a very common way to show cause.
2. Get a notarized document proving that I have a contract to live in my apartment. This document must be in the form of a letter certifying that I have permission to live at the stated address from my landlord.
3. Get a document from the public records office proving that my landlord actually owns the property mentioned in the notarized letter.
4. $4,000, either in a bank, or I could just flash them the cash. (The Russian Mafia will loan you the money for 24 hours for about 1%).
5. Get a document from the Czech State Police that certifies you have no criminal record in the Czech Republic
6. Get a similar document from my home country. (incidentally, the only agency in the US that equates to "State Police" is the FBI and they issue no such documents. No Americans could get visas for about 6 months until they worked that out).
7. Fill out a 4 page application and file it in a Czech Embassy outside the country. (I chose Bratislava for proximity. However, I had to spend nearly 12 hours in a windy, sub-zero Bratislava).
8. Wait a month for an acceptance letter and then return to Bratislava, pay $50 (in Slovak Crowns) and play the waiting game once more.
All of the documents have to be fresh (30 days) so you really have to be organized. Plenty of people have all their documents expire on them while they wait for their 80 year old landlord to give them the letter. Any number of things can foil your best laid plans and you start over.
Now the point is that the Czechs didn't care that I was already in the country. In fact, I had to show that I had already made connections and had resources. If I had been arrested at some point, I would have been out of the running. If I was a criminal at home, they didn't want me. If I couldn't get someone to loan me $4,000 for a day, I wouldn't have the resources to take care of myself in a tough situation.
My peers and myself didn't have the numbers to take to the streets as 500,000 did in Los Angeles this week
. Had we, it could have led to our deportation and we all knew that. Everyone complained when they made the process harder, but as illegal aliens, we weren't in any position to hold a protest. We didn't have the numbers or really did we feel we had the right, despite our hard work and love of the country.
If nothing else, the protests in LA will be a wake-up call to the government that they have overlooked this issue too long. They will need to provide a legal avenue for currently illegal aliens to become legal. Those who can prove residence, and have proven have a job, should be given temporary legal status if they meet all the criteria set down. They should have to do this yearly for at least 5 years. Essentially, they are proving their resourcefulness and determination to stay in the US and their unwillingness to turn to crime. At the same time, the government should deport those with criminal records whenever possible. Similarly should new offenders be deported. In the Czech Republic, if you are an alien (legal or not) and you are caught in a criminal offense, they give you the opportunity to leave with a 4 year "no return" stamp in your passport. Or you can go to court and face the charges, do the time.... and then leave the country with a 4 year "no return" stamp in your passport. You can guess what most people choose.
As it becomes realistic to get legal working status in the US, and penalties for working illegally are raised for workers and employers alike, the whole business of illegal workers becomes further and further marginalized. It becomes harder and harder for illegals to get jobs as more and more legal guest workers are available. They will eventually be forced to go through the legal process, or be forced to leave the country. This is exactly what has happened in the Czech Republic. There are a few illegals still around, but most people play by the rules because it is nearly impossible to find work otherwise. In 1997 this was not the case at all. People complained about the reforms, which they will in the US if the Congress is bold enough to actually do something, but in the end, the demands are reasonable, and the penalties are too great for employers. They didn't ever think about kicking everyone out, but they make you leave and come back so you will be caught if you are an international fugitive. I guess the international fugitive lobby just isn't what it used to be.
Eventually, just being illegal will be cause for deportation, but at this juncture, it is an impractical solution. 11 million immigrants cannot be removed at once, nor would that help the country. Instead, pressure (punitive measures) and incentives (legal avenues), should be equally utilized in order to legitimize and legalize migrant workers.
I do not advocate full amnesty. It should be just as hard for someone already in the country to become legal as it would be for a person immigrating for the first time. Clearly those already in the country may have an advantage if they are already working and have a permanent residence, but these are precisely the people that should be given legal status first.
Plans to punish those people already living in working in the US will only cause resentment and instability. Building a fence will only force those coming over the boarder to take more drastic measures.
This issue can only be resolved with a sound, multi-pronged approach which provides both a legal avenue for migrant workers to get legal status, and discourages illegal employment with incrementally stricter penalties for illegal workers and the companies which employ them.