Immigration Law's Third Rail

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I recently sent the most difficult text message I've ever had to send in my life. I sent it to my uncle Wendell. He's from the Philippines and he has lived in the United States for 13 years without proper immigration papers. He texted me almost immediately after President Obama made a landmark announcement that may allow millions to get temporary immigration status.

I heard the little ping, so I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out my phone. He wrote, "Am I eligible?" It broke my heart when I had to text him back, "Probably not," because he didn't meet the basic eligibility criteria. He needs to continue working under the table because he cannot legally hold a job.

He is in this situation because almost 30 years ago in 1986, there was a sea change in immigration law. President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which mandated that an employer may not hire any person unless that person had legal permission to work in the country. Many Americans assume this has been the rule since our nation's founding, but it's just not the case.

There are now more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who suffer under this regime of unauthorized vs. authorized work. They endure exploitative working conditions where failure to pay minimum wage or overtime is commonplace.

All Americans, including undocumented Americans, deserve a fair chance in the labor market. But because of this fundamental unfairness due to the 1986 law, the system will always be rigged against them.  


We as a nation have done the right thing in the past, changing unjust laws to strengthen our democracy. I hope this president or our next president will be brave enough to take on this cause and be a champion of immigrant workers. And I can't wait for the chance to text my uncle back with the good news that he -- and his labor -- will finally be treated equally in society.

With a Perspective, I'm Chris Punongbayan.

Chris Punongbayan is Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus.