A reasonable step in immigration policy


The Vineyard community, itself immigrant in nature, has benefited significantly from various immigrant populations over centuries, among them Azorean harpooners, English farmers and missionaries, Scandinavian fishermen, Irish and European summer workers, and now Brazilians. Then, as now, these visitors, many of whom became residents, then citizens, and ultimately Islanders, also became neighbors, friends, relations, colleagues, and community leaders. They embraced us, we embraced them. Some began as and remained short-term visitors. Their hearts dwelt in their homelands elsewhere. Others found home here.

As we report this morning, according to the last U.S. census, Vineyard Haven ranked 7th and Edgartown ranked 12th among American cities with the highest percentage of people claiming Brazilian ancestry. While there’s no way to corroborate the numbers exactly, Brazilian community leaders concede that possibly as many as half the Brazilians living and working on Martha’s Vineyard may not be U.S. citizens.

Federal officials now plan to refocus deportation efforts on illegal residents with serious criminal liability, while taking another approach to low-priority cases, without the taint of criminality, that are slowly making their way through deportation hearings in federal immigration court. Make no mistake, this effort is not an immigration plan. It’s a plan to use Justice Department resources more efficiently.

Still, in most such cases a low-priority prospective deportee will be able to apply for a work permit, which would allow the person to work in the United States legally. If this refocus hastens the departure of illegal residents who are criminals and identifies and grants legal work status to those who are not, it’s a smart move and one from which the nation and the Vineyard community will benefit.

Although issues embedded in the national debate over immigration are many and the political battle is clamorous, there is little else that is new. As with so many other difficult, politically dangerous issues, no leaders have emerged to move the time- and resource-wasting dispute toward a resolution.

Reform of immigration laws, which ought to be a job for Congress and the president, will ultimately be our job. We find our elected leaders unable to do it, so improving the way the nation deals with immigrants falls to the followers, the neighbors, friends, employers, and co-workers of the immigrants who live among us.

What do we, who are also voters, expect of Congress when it makes new law governing immigration?

Knowing the Vineyard’s immigrant population in the limited ways that we do, it’s clear that the prospects for legal immigrants, whether for the short-term or for a lifetime, are much richer than for those who are here illegally. Every community wants all of its citizens to share equally in the benefits and responsibilities of citizenship. That’s not possible when some residents live under the constraints of illegality and fear.

So, the unregulated flow of uncounted numbers of immigrants across the country’s borders must be stopped. The law must make welcome those who want to come to work, briefly or for the long-term, but do not want to become citizens. This is especially true of those who are unusually talented, well-educated, and ambitious. We need them. Those who are determined to add themselves to the rolls of full-fledged citizens ought to have the opportunity to do so.

For those who are here illegally, the opportunity ought to be available for them to convert their status from illegal to legal, and eventually to citizenship. And the rules and costs of taking these necessary steps must be streamlined. One Island resident has told The Times that it cost him $10,000 and more than three years to get a green card to live and work here legally. That’s too great a hurdle.

For those who will not take the steps to be legal neighbors, there can be no place for them. And, employers on-Island and off- who hire immigrants without legal work papers must be penalized. Despite what they claim about the difficulty finding help and despite their claims that they pay illegals what they would pay legal workers, these employers are exploiting illegal workers. They are taking advantage of men and women who ought to have rights to all the benefits and protections afforded American employees. And employers who join with illegal workers in skirting the law are ultimately helping themselves, not the immigrant workers.

It’s a national issue, of course, but as we report today, it’s a Vineyard issue too, and the outcome of the debate will have important implications for our Island community of immigrants as well.