Tired, Poor, Imprisoned Masses

If you think you are hearing more individuals speaking foreign languages and heavy accents on the streets of New York than before, you are right.

As reported in Wednesday’s edition, immigrants now comprise 37.2 percent of New York City dwellers, according to the 2013 edition of “The Newest New Yorkers,” put together by the Population Division of the city Department of City Planning.

That means that more than 3 million of the city’s residents in 2011 were born in another country, a dramatic increase since 1970, when 18 percent of residents, or about 1.4 million, were immigrants.

The last time the city had a higher share of immigrants was more than a hundred years ago, in 1910, when 41 percent of residents were foreign-born.

Some 700,000 of the immigrants currently residing in NYC — nearly one quarter — are here illegally. A significant percentage of these individuals will be able to change their legal status by obtaining a much-desired “green card.” While it may take years until these individuals will be able to enjoy the benefits of American citizens, they are able to legally live and work in the United States on a permanent basis.

Many of these workers toil for long hours at the jobs no one else wants to do, often for far less than legal residents would ever agree to. Most are law-abiding, family-oriented individuals who are here only because they are seeking a better life, and a way to honestly support their families. They came here because they know that in their home countries there are no jobs to be gotten at all.

Some of them have been here for many years, but they live in constant fear of being caught and arrested as, each year, a considerable percentage of illegal immigrants are detained by the immigration officials and many are eventually deported.

The plight of these detainees is now the focus of a legal drama being played out in a New York courtroom.

According to a story broken by the Associated Press on Wednesday, U.S. prosecutors say they can’t meet a judge’s demands that they quickly deliver documents about thousands of immigrants who’ve been detained nationwide for months or years as their immigration statuses are reviewed.

The office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara laid out the government’s position to U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman.

The letter came after the judge criticized the government, saying it had been on notice since the American Civil Liberties Union requested the documents nearly five years ago.

The ACLU eventually filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in Manhattan federal court in 2011, seeking documents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The ACLU questioned the practice of “prolonged immigration detention — for months, if not years — without adequate procedures in place to determine whether their detention is justified.” It cited a dramatic increase in the number of immigration detainees in recent decades, noting they weren’t serving criminal sentences but were being detained by the thousands to ensure they’re available for removal from the country if removal is ordered and appeals are exhausted.

The judge said the government’s continued refusal to produce documents had stymied efforts to reform a system in which thousands of immigrant detainees, some applicants for asylum, languish in immigration jails longer than six months.

It is high time that the United States government revamps its failed and patently unfair immigration policy.

America has always been a nation of immigrants. Other than those who descend from Native Americans, all Americans are either immigrants or are descendants of immigrants. Even those who claim to descend from the pilgrims on the Mayflower have to admit that when their ancestors docked on Cape Cod in November 1620, they too were immigrants — and they didn’t exactly request a visa from the Wampanoag Indians.

There is merit to the argument that a widespread amnesty for those who are here illegally will only reward those who have broken the law. But, at the same time, it is important to recognize the fact that not only is showing compassion to those who have lived exemplary, hardworking lives for years the right thing to do, it is also vital to our economic interests. Mass deportations of illegal immigrants would play havoc with our work force, and would mean that local businesses would lose a significant percentage of their customers.

Those individuals who have clean records, and have been detained solely because they are here illegally, deserve that their basic human rights be protected while in detention.

America has long symbolized the words of Emma Lazarus’s poem, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Surely the land of Liberty can find creative and fair solutions that would allow the countless law-abiding undocumented immigrants to emerge from the shadows of society and live the American dream.