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Immigration Debate Influences US Presidential Campaign

The challenges facing many African immigrants in the United States is affected by political debate on the impact of illegal immigration on the US economy. In this 5th of a 5 part series, Voice of America English to Africa’s Henok Fente reports.

The immigration reform bill was killed in Congress in June. It ended after supporters failed to get enough votes in the Senate to cut off debate and allow a vote on the bill. But immigration reform continues to move forward and is expected to be a political factor leading up to the 2008 presidential election. Democratic Party presidential hopeful, Barack Obama had this to say in a recent televised debate among other presidential candidates: “We are a country of immigrants; we are also a country of laws. The question is how do we balance that appropriately. I am hopeful that we can solve this problem constructively. We want to have a situation in which those who are already here are playing by the rules or willing to pay a fine and go through a rigorous process should have a pathway to legalization. And I think most Americans will support that if they have some sense that the border is also being secured.”

The senator himself is of East African descent and supports a comprehensive immigration reform bill. His party rival, Hillary Clinton, agrees with him on the need for immigration reform. But the topic is expected to influence votes in the general elections.

Chuks Elenou of the Washington-based think tank African-Pac says Obama’s candidacy can bring African issues to the table. He says Senator Obama is an example of what immigrant families can achieve in the United States if given a chance. Obama would qualify as the first indigenous African to run for office in the United States. Just by virtue of his being present within that mix exposes a lot of issues on that agenda.

Eleonu argues that an immigration bill should favor educated and skilled immigrants. He says the United States can benefit from attracting such immigrants, “If immigration reform is done holistically, which means all immigrants and breaking it down to what those immigrants bring to the table, then it will benefit Africans and it [will] also benefit America. We say for Africans, yes, because you are getting doctors, you are getting highly qualified nurses, you are getting highly qualified technicians.”

Many support the effort to open doors to educated immigrants.

Douglas Rivlin of the National Immigration Forum says the United States needs to break away from anti-immigration sentiments for its own good, “It is often framed as bad people, these immigrants who are (said to be) breaking good laws, when in fact it is bad laws that are tripping up a lot of good people. The United States is shooting itself in the foot if it does not have a legal immigration system that is working in response to the needs of the country.”

Those who oppose current levels of immigration say the new arrivals are taking jobs from Americans. They say illegal immigrants put a strain on social services, including health care and education.

Among the critics of U.S. immigration policy, the Federation for American Immigration Reform says it is working for sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers. It says it would like to see an electronic system in place to verify the legal status of workers, increased border controls and funding for detention facilities, and increased deportations.

In July, Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado introduced legislation that would place tighter restrictions on legal immigration and encourage illegal immigrants to leave. He is quoted in a public statement by the Cybercast News Service as saying his proposal “would restore America’s immigration system to more traditional numbers and encourage the assimilation of America’s most recent great wave.” Among other things, the proposal would tighten access to work permits, known as green cards, and limit the automatic birthright citizenship only to those with one legal parent.

But Rivlin says America has a growing demand for an immigrant work force. “We have a growing economy with relatively low unemployment and inflation. We need workers in this country if our economy is going to continue to grow.”

Rivlin says immigrant workers have helped improve the economy in some states that don’t have as many restrictions on immigrants. “A recent study in the state of California shows that [the wages of] native-born California workers have increased four percent on average because of the presence of immigrants in the economy. So it is building up our economic strength, it is about increasing our productivity and it is about keeping the economy healthy.”

Many immigrants and others working for an immigration bill agree that the issue may not be revived under the current administration. But they expect it to take center stage in Congress in the next administration.

Hundreds of thousands of Africans come to the United States in search of opportunities and a better life. Some find the progress they were expecting but for many, life is a struggle even on this side of the Atlantic.