Immigration Debate Divides Committee Hearing

Wednesday, February 09, 2011


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In the end, speakers at the House Labor Committee hearing last night on a bill to enforce immigration laws and reinstitute E-Verify for state employees found unity on at least one thing—the issue can be a divisive one.

“The one accurate argument against E-Verify is that it’s divisive. Like all laws, it’s intended to be divisive,” said Deloris Issler, a representative of the Cranston chapter of the Tea Party. “Its purpose is to divide illegal aliens from citizens and law-abiding guests.”

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozo, an opponent of the bill, largely agreed, urging House members to stick to the facts. “This debate is typically emotional. It is highly political and so I wanted my testimony to be as rational as possible.”

How much does illegal immigration cost?
But just what the facts are behind the debate was not clear—at least at the hearing. Mehlman-Orozo, who recently moved to Rhode Island from Virginia, said the cost of implementing a similar immigration control measure in Prince William County alone was $6 million. When state Rep. John Edwards, D- Portsmouth, Tiverton, said illegal immigration costs Rhode Island an estimated $100 million, Mehlman-Orozo said she’d have to see the math behind that figure.

Supporters of the bill said illegal immigration took jobs away from legal residents. “Passing this bill will not only turn off the jobs magnet for illegals but will encourage those with jobs here to leave our state opening up jobs for those 74,000 unemployed who are legally authorized to work in Rhode Island,” said Terry Gorham, executive director of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement.

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Fears of discrimination
Gorham (pictured right) also denied that the bill—which restores an executive order that Governor Don Carcieri issued—would encourage discrimination. “Gov. Carcieri put together a commission comprised of local clergy leaders and illegal alien advocacy groups to determine any unintended consequences created by his executive order in the immigrant community,” Gorham said. “That commission was disbanded when no formal reports of such consequences came forth. So much for divisiveness and fear.”

But Kate Brock, executive director of Ocean State Action, said discrimination was an unavoidable outcome if the new law is passed.

“House Bill 5043, if passed, would help to perpetuate a climate of fear among immigrant workers. Employers will avoid hiring new employees knowing that they might be forced to terminate them if there is an E-Verify problem,” Brock said in her submitted testimony. “This bill will encourage small businesspeople to avoid hiring people altogether if they perceive that they could be an undocumented immigrant – meaning that those with Latino appearance and last names will be discriminated against whether they are citizens, legal immigrants, or undocumented immigrants.”

Legal immigration not always an option?

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One speaker who supported the bill said all immigrants should take the legal path to entering the United States. But depending on where you are coming from, that simply isn’t an option, said Mehlman-Orozo. “There is no proverbial line,” she said. “You’re never going to get your turn.”

Mehlman-Orozo said she knows firsthand: her husband came to the United States illegally with his family because they did not have the chance to come here legally. (Her husband has since gained legal citizenship.)

If anything the hearing at least proved that the debate, while divisive, can also be a civil one.

Several hours into the hearing, Gorham stepped out into the hallway and found himself talking to Julio Aragon, head of the Mexican Association of Rhode Island (pictured left). Aragon, a former illegal immigrant who owes his legal status to the 1986 amnesty bill passed under President Ronald Reagan, opposes the proposed law in Rhode Island.

“I disagree with you, but I’m willing to listen to you,” Aragon told Gorham.

“Me too,” Gorham responded.


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