The Right To Work In America

Immigration and the American Workforce

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By Attorney Kenneth Wincorn
Special to THELAW.TV

Imagine that you are a licensed lawyer who graduated from college with distinction and went to law school and passed the state bar. Now you apply to work for a law firm and are told by the government that you cannot work for anyone and, even if you start your own office, you cannot handle any clients with federal legal issues. This is the situation for a recently licensed California attorney and he is fortunate to be in California. If he lived in most other states, he would not be able to get a license at all and might not be able to work legally in any capacity.

Millions of people are in somewhat similar circumstances. Talented and capable of work, but not allowed to contribute legally to society and their families. They are the phantom, semi-invisible workers who came here because of their desire to live a decent life in a country that they wished to live in. They suffered life threatening trips through the desert and crossed rivers without being able to swim, with their children on their backs. They live on the edge of deep poverty in crowded apartments or tiny homes, many sleeping in a room. The children go to church and school, but know that when they graduate, there is no career for them. In many states, they do not qualify for scholarships and must pay out-of-state tuition if they are to attend a college.

What causes this to happen? Technically, the reason is that they entered the country without inspection or their visas expired. They are in an impossible position because if they leave the U.S., they can't come back for at least ten years. Anyone who is in the country for more than one year acquires what is, in immigration terms, called illegal presence. Upon any departure to another country, the bar starts and they cannot return without major difficulty if at all. If they stay they are not allowed to legally work in any capacity and cannot get a driver's license or social security number. In an effort to try to comply with the law as much as possible, many get a Taxpayer Information Number and pay income taxes, but get no benefits or refunds, even though they are paying for them.

The problem becomes particularly bad for those who seek higher education. Many with college and advanced degrees are forced to work in menial jobs because employers are not allowed to hire them. If they do, they are subject to penalties that can be a serious problem for the business. As a result, they are part of the phantom workforce that is under-paid and under-employed.

What is the solution? There have been attempts for comprehensive reform for many years, but so far, politics has prevented changes in the law. It appears doubtful that anything action will take place until after the primary elections in March, but hopefully after then we may see some concrete steps to remedy this situation.

The author, Kenneth Wincorn, is a immigration attorney in Richardson, Texas.

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