Immigration reform vital to Alaskans

Robin Bronen

Once again U.S. immigration policies are in the national spotlight. Arizona Gov. Brewer signed legislation on April 23 to authorize the arrest of Arizona residents if a police officer has reasonable suspicion that the person is in the United States without immigration documents. Her decision to sign this legislation has catapulted comprehensive immigration reform from the end of a long list of important Congressional legislation to competing for first place with financial reform.

The Arizona legislation jeopardizes all of its residents. Victims and witnesses of crimes will fear contacting local law enforcement for fear of deportation. This creates particularly lethal situations for immigrant domestic violence victims. A 15-year veteran of the Tucson Police Department has filed a federal law suit asking that local law enforcement be exempt from enforcing the law because he believes that the law will "seriously impede law enforcement investigations and facilitate the successful commission of crimes."

Since 1994, I have worked with hundreds of immigrant domestic violence victims in Alaska. The lack of immigration documents is one of the most powerful tools that an abuser can use to prevent their immigrant spouse from seeking protection and safety. All victims of domestic violence and sexual assault must believe they can call local law enforcement without fear they will be further victimized. All of our safety is compromised if anyone in our community is afraid to call the police when they are a crime victim or witness.

In the cacophony of hateful slurs, the fact that immigrants contribute to our economy is completely ignored. In February of this year, the Immigration Policy Center published these facts about Alaska's immigrant community. The 2009 purchasing power of Latinos in Alaska totaled $1.2 billion and Asian buying power in Alaska totaled $1.1 billion. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's Survey of Business Owners, Alaska has 1,908 Asian-owned businesses, which employed 5,222 people, and had sales and receipts of $421.1 million in 2002, the last year for which data is available. Alaska's 1,241 Latino-owned businesses had sales and receipts of $171.2 million and employed 1,985 people in 2002.

Commentators also fail to acknowledge the complex intersection between international trade policies, specifically the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, the millions of Mexican farmers who have lost their livelihood and the U.S. businesses that recruit Mexican workers to work in U.S. factories. Under NAFTA, Mexico opened its markets to imported corn from the U.S. According to University of California research, U.S. corn exports to Mexico have expanded by a factor of three since the early 1990s, and now comprise almost one third of the Mexican domestic market. These imports into Mexico have caused a steep decline in prices for Mexican corn farmers selling their produce. For the 15 million Mexicans who depend on the crop, declining prices have translated into declining incomes and increased hardship.

According to a 2006 San Francisco Chronicle article, an estimated 1.5 million agricultural jobs have been lost since NAFTA went into effect. Many of those who lost their only source of income in Mexico came to the U.S. to work in the meat packing and poultry industry. Hard working, these immigrants have contributed to the profits these U.S. businesses have passed along to their U.S. citizen shareholders.

So what does comprehensive immigration reform mean for Alaskans? Alaska families will be able to remain together. Too many Alaska families live in fear that their parent or spouse will be deported from the United States for lack of immigration documents. Barred under the current law from obtaining immigration documents, these parents and spouses move through our community seeking to remain invisible so that their families are not torn apart. Alaska's immigrant employers and employees will be able to continue to add their purchasing power to Alaska's economy.

And most importantly, comprehensive immigration reform will allow our friends, neighbors, coworkers and family members, who are doctors, students, lawyers, mechanics, artists, business owners and hotel and restaurant workers, to remain in our community.

Robin Bronen has worked with immigrants and refugees in Alaska since 1994. She is currently the executive director of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project, the only nonprofit agency providing comprehensive immigration legal services and housing the Language Interpreter Center dedicated to training Alaska Native and foreign language interpreters.