One problem Western Pennsylvania doesn't have is an excess of immigration. But here, as across the country, a renewed battle over immigration reform -- a thorny issue with more conflicting interests than a 10-car pile-up -- is taking shape.
On April 14, the National Road Heritage Corridor held a nine-person debate on immigration at Washington & Jefferson College. That same week, the AFL-CIO announced that it was willing to work with rival union coalition Change to Win to forge a new approach on immigration reform. And on April 22, activist and educator Irasema Coronado delivered a speech on social justice at the Mexican border, at a convocation held at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College.
The ideas for addressing the decades-old conundrum are myriad. Some, like the labor unions, are suggesting that the country must consider a more flexible course for dealing with those who are already here. Others insist that amnesty is unfair to those who came here legally. But everyone agrees a fix is needed.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done," Coronado told the room of more than 50 students. "I'm hoping that someone here embraces that. ... We need to look at immigration policy."
And, she added, we've got to move beyond the classroom and beyond the border. "Bi-national problems require bi-national solutions. ... We are wed, whether we like it or not, at this region."
The United States has seen a net international migration rate of more than a million people per year for most of this decade, according to Census estimates. Yet, not many of them have made it to this part of the country.
Even as deaths outpace births in Allegheny County -- and more Americans leave the county than enter it -- the Census estimates that Allegheny netted just 14,413 international migrants from April 2000 to July 2008.
People across the ideological spectrum, however, maintain that immigration affects everyone, even those living in a city that hasn't seen much recent foreign immigration.
"How much would we pay for a head of lettuce if the worker had health insurance?" Coronado later asked CP via telephone from El Paso, Texas. "I think we need to take a look at the globalized economy."
That same message was delivered at the W&J debate.
"Every single person in this room and at this table benefits from having these people here," said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's law school. "If you slept in a hotel lately, if you ate a strawberry for breakfast, if you had your house cleaned ... We all want the benefits, but we don't want to pay anything for it."
Harris, who studies law enforcement and national defense, says that emotions and a willingness to conflate illegal immigration with criminality can muddy the waters of debate.
"Let's make something really clear," Harris said at the debate. "Aliens, people from other countries, are five times less likely to commit crime." He later explained to CP that "Anybody who is interested in a criminal lifestyle can be a criminal in Mexico."
Harris says Americans need to have a serious discussion on immigration that eschews knee-jerk reactions for complex analysis, with more attention paid to the economics of immigration.
"People who are willing to risk dying in the desert are not going to be deterred because of a fence or because Lou Dobbs is on TV," Harris added in an interview. "That's reality."
At the debate, Sister Janice Vanderneck -- a former director of the Latino Catholic Community Office for Social Services -- implored the audience to show compassion for those immigrants.
"Everyone across the spectrum philosophically ... will say our immigration system is broken," she said. But she cautioned the audience not to "separate out what is a critical piece of our country, and that is the values on which we are based."
Relying solely on enforcement to address the problem, she says, is "separating families," as relatives are deported or jailed.
In fact, some researchers worry that deporting immigrants may be creating new criminals. During her CMU speech, Coronado said many children who are separated from their families during failed immigration controls "become vulnerable populations," turning to drugs, prostitution or begging.
Vanderneck does see a hopeful sign of change, though: In early April, President Barack Obama pledged to push immigration reform in 2009. Vanderneck says the White House's commitment should be a boon to those pressing for a more humane reform.
"The attempts in the past five years to fix the problem just with enforcement only have resulted in where we find ourselves today: real chaos and some serious offenses to civil rights," Vanderneck says.
On the other side, however, some would argue that the federal government hasn't done enough to prosecute immigrants who came to this country illegally or overstayed their visas.
At the W&J debate, for example, conservative columnist and commentator Cal Thomas took issue with an April 13 New York Times editorial asserting the government should help get "undocumented immigrants on the right side of the law."
"What does it mean to get them on the right side of the law?" Thomas asked. "Does it mean that ... now that they have broken the law, they should suffer the penalty ... or do they get a free pass?"
Hazelton Mayor Louis Barletta -- who also participated in the April 14 debate -- drafted an ordinance in 2006 making it unlawful to knowingly hire or rent to an illegal immigrant. A federal judge ruled that Hazelton's law was unconstitutional in 2007, but the eastern Pennsylvania city is appealing.
And Barletta has ideological allies in the western part of the state as well. State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) said during the debate that "Americans want to know, 'Why can't we fix the illegal-alien issue? Why can't we protect our children from the identity theft, from the murders and rapes?'"
Metcalfe -- who is fond of referring to illegal immigration as "an invasion of our nation" -- is irate that people who came here illegally are able to commit crimes against American citizens. But he goes even further to say, "Illegal aliens are nothing but criminals." In lieu of federal action, Metcalfe supports stricter enforcement of immigration on the local and state levels.
But there are signs that the populist appeal of the anti-immigration message is starting to wear thin, at least among labor leaders. The joint framework put forth by the AFL-CIO and Change to Win in April states that mass deportation of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants is "not a realistic solution." Therefore -- to create an incentive for illegal residents to come forward -- "an inclusive, practical and swift adjustment-of-status program" is needed.
The unions professed that America's current policy toward illegal immigrants is sustaining "a large pool of unauthorized workers whom employers ... continue to exploit in order to drive down wages and other standards, to the detriment of all workers."
"I think the unions are starting to realize that we all need to work together," Coronado told CP. "There is an awareness that it's not the worker that's taking your job, it's the corporation," by sending the job overseas.
The solution may still be far in the future, but, as Coronado closed her remarks at CMU, she offered the audience one uplifting thought. "If you think we have problems on the U.S.-Mexico border," she said, "you should go to the Guatemala-Mexico border."
- Activist Irasema Coronado searches for answers on the U.S.-Mexico border.