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Tri-City group debates immigration reform

 | Published on 7/31/2010

KENNEWICK -- They debated a hot topic in a cool fashion.

Kennewick Councilman Bob Parks and immigration attorney Tom Roach of Pasco agreed on one thing: Immigration reform is needed.

And both said the nation needs to put more emphasis on border enforcement and mandatory verification of a person's right to work in the United States by employers before hiring. Not complying with the law should be a crime, they said.

From there, many of their perspectives on the divisive topic diverged as they argued before more than 100 people who turned out for the best-attended forum in the history of the Columbia Basin Badger Club, which sponsored their discussion at the Kennewick Red Lion Hotel.

Both cited personal anecdotes to highlight their views on what America should do with its almost 11 million illegal aliens, or those who are in the country without a valid visa.

It's not feasible to deport millions of people who are in the country illegally, Parks said. But they need to be identified and their cases processed individually.

There should be no mass-scale amnesty and being in the U.S. illegally should be made a felony crime, said Parks, who supports the controversial Arizona immigration law that requires police officers to check a person's legal status while enforcing other laws.

Arizona has been ordered not to enforce parts of the law by a federal judge, setting the stage for a long-drawn legal battle.

Undocumented workers do the low-paying jobs that Americans don't want and contribute to the economy by paying taxes, Roach said. And sending them away would be a disaster for farms, factories and other places that rely on the sweat of low-skill foreign workers, he added.

Both said they believe immigrants should learn English to prevent a linguistics split that could tear apart a nation. Canada and Belgium are two examples of that, Roach said.

Immigration politics are divisive, both said.

"Politicians are busy chasing votes," Parks said. They know Hispanics are the fastest-growing community in the U.S., he said. But he said his call for a strict implementation of immigration laws is not about singling out Hispanics or any other racial group.

Roach said he thinks about 60 percent of the population is misinformed about the issue. Conservative media commentators don't necessarily give the whole truth when they discuss immigration, he said.

Even if illegal workers use a fake green card or Social Security number, they contribute to the economy by paying into Social Security and by paying income, sales and property taxes, he said. He also said the number of illegal aliens in the country has declined from 12.2 million to 10.8 million in the last few years.

Lawmakers should include a flexible provision in any reform package to address the number of legal guest workers -- which now stands at 5,000 a year -- allowed into the U.S. to take low-skill jobs, Roach said.

"If there are jobs, people will find them with or without green cards," he said.

Non-Hispanics face subtle discrimination when it comes to being hired on a farm or in a food processing plant, Parks said. He said he's heard people say, 'We don't want to hire white people.' "

Food stamps and free lunches for the children of illegal aliens impose a financial burden, he said. He wants Congress to change the law that grants automatic citizenship to those born in the U.S. People wishing to settle in the U.S. must use legal channels, he said.

Laws governing illegal residents in Mexico are far tougher, he said. For example, there's no welfare or bilingual program in school for them, he said.

Partly because about 70 percent of illegal aliens in the country are Hispanics, "they are the most visible," Roach said.

People from other regions, particularly Asia, also have managed to sneak in through the Mexican border, and many have overstayed their visas, Parks said, expressing concerns about the potential for terrorism.

C. Mark Smith, who emceed the program, said he's not surprised by the focus on Hispanics in the current immigration debate. Anytime there's economic trouble, people tend to look for a scapegoat.

It happened in the 1840s against Catholics and some northern Europeans, in the 1880s against southern Europeans, in the 1940s against Japanese, and after World War II against suspected communist sympathizers, Smith said.

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