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Obstacles in the Path

At a House hearing Wednesday, lawmakers learned that undocumented immigrants have almost no way to earn permanent residency status in the U.S. through employment and that a much-touted system to verify that employees can legally work here is flawed.

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Without an advanced degree or one of a limited variety of seasonal jobs, unskilled laborers have almost no way to earn permanent residency status in the U.S. through employment — regardless of how long they work here or how faithfully they adhere to visa requirements, according to testimony Wednesday at a hearing of the House State Affairs Committee on the costs of services provided to undocumented immigrants in Texas.

Pathways for legal residency generally exist only in seasonal or peak-load jobs, lawmakers were told. “Like agriculture jobs, amusement-parks or jobs that require certain kinds of outdoor work. For example ... if you want to lay oil pipelines in Alaska," said immigration attorney Michael Golden of Austin’s Boulette & Golden. Gaining permanent residency status, for many, is part of the process of becoming a citizen.

That may not be news to advocates for comprehensive immigration reform — the generic term for policies that would ease the path to legal permanent residency — but it surprised some committee members, who learned that even many industries that survive partly due to unskilled labor do not fit the criteria.

“So, if you … want to work in the construction business and you want to apply to be a citizen, there is really no way to do that?” asked state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine.

Golden responded, “Through employment, there is almost no way to do that.” Aside from some special cases, such as asylum or refugee claims, the only other paths to legal residency require having a family member in the United States. 

Golden added that annual caps further limit the number of employment visas — whether for skilled or unskilled jobs or even visas specifically allowed by the North American Free Trade Agreement — that could lead to future permanent residency status. The U.S. will hand out no more than 150,167 green cards this year that were obtained through employment. It can take up to eight years to receive a permanent residency status that way, partly due to a federal law requiring that no more than 7 percent of the annual allotment come from one country.

Costs and benefits

Of course, many immigrants simply choose to skip the arduous path to legal residency and remain in the country illegally. The lawmakers got a rundown of what illegal immigrants cost the state in public safety and government entitlements. As of last July 2010, about 11,760 of the offenders incarcerated in the Texas State prison system, or 7.5 percent of the total prison population, claimed foreign residency, according to testimony from Jerry McGinty, the budget director for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Through current agreements with the federal government, specifically Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the state can identify prisoners eligible for deportation at the end of their sentences. Roughly 9,800 of the foreigners incarcerated had ICE detainers placed on them. Though not all entered the country illegally, McGinty estimated that the state pays at least $171 million annually to detain prisoners who could be deported. The remaining inmates with foreigner status, McGinty said, are currently being processed to determine if they, too, qualify for deportation.

A competitive federal grant program known as the Criminal Alien Assistance Program partially reimburses state governments for those costs. For Texas, however, that hardly settles the score. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice received $17.9 million in fiscal year 2010 — just 10 percent of the costs of incarceration. 

When it comes to health and human services, the state spent about $96 million on undocumented immigrants, said Rick Allgeyer, director of research for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. The bulk of that, about $62 million, went to Medicaid spending. About $1.3 million was spent in the Texas Family Violence Program, and the remainder, about $33 million, went to serve the immigrants in the Children's Health Insurance Program perinatal program.

The legislators heard no statistics about what the undocumented community pays in property and sales taxes and how much that might offset costs to government. The latest figures, including both sides of the equation, came in a 2006 report from then-Comptroller of Public Accounts Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who estimated the state's 1.4 million undocumented immigrants contributed $17.7 billion to the 2005 gross state product, or about 2 percent of the total. The report noted that state revenues collected from undocumented immigrants exceeded what the government spent on services by $424.7 million. It determines, however, that “local governments and hospitals experience the opposite,” with a difference of about $929 million in 2005.

Eva DeLuna Castro, a policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said the 2010 and 2015 estimates provided by the study shouldn’t be seen as reliable today, because “making an economic forecast in 2005-06 wouldn't have predicted the impact of the recession that has really slowed down or reduced the number of undocumented immigrants in Texas.”

A spokesman with Combs' office said the comptroller had no plans to update the '06 report before the legislative session convenes in January.

Following the rules

Lawmakers also heard about serious problems with E-Verify, a nationwide system that allows employers to confirm that an employee or applicant can legally work in the U.S. Texas employers aren't currently required to use the system, which matches the name, date of birth and Social Security number supplied by the applicant to a database shared by the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, for verification.

Generally, 97 percent of the submissions receive approval within 24 hours, according to data that Golden said he obtained from USCIS. But state Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, who owns an auto dealership, said those numbers seemed high based on her experience. At least half of her submissions, she said, take longer due to technical issues.

“If you use their middle initial, and they spell it out, it gets kicked back,” she said. "I was wondering how they got their statistics.”

Golden told lawmakers that E-Verify was flawed and explained how some U.S. citizens have been flagged because of errors within the system. Data from the Social Security Administration showed 17.8 million errors, he said, and about 12.7 million involved legal citizens. Another study commissioned by USCIS estimated that 53 percent of the undocumented workers run through the system come back as authorized.

The discussion led Gallegos to ask what benefit, if any, E-Verify offered.

“I haven’t identified one,” Golden said.

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