They are everywhere in the city, but you see them most often in the kitchens of restaurants, the corridors of hotels and motels, the cash-only businesses. They are Philadelphia’s undocumented immigrants and depending on who you ask, they are either a menace to society, a boon to the economy or an at-risk population taken advantage of by employers and businesses.
It’s obvious to anyone paying attention to Philadelphia’s shifting demographics that the Latino and Asian populations are expanding exponentially. A quick walk through South Philly’s nationally known Italian Market shows the majority of businesses are no longer Italian-owned, but are Latino- and Asian-run.
According to the U.S. Census, between 2000 and 2010, the city’s Latino/Hispanic population increased by 44 percent to 187,611 and its Asian population grew by 42 percent to 95,521. The racial breakdown of the city in 2012 was 44 percent black, 36 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic/Latino and 7 percent Asian. Within those demographics some people are also of mixed race.
When two racial groups nearly double in size in a decade’s time, it signals a change in the city overall–a change that will continue to manifest itself in myriad ways. One change that has occurred in Philadelphia is there are more undocumented workers and they are increasingly at risk.
The majority of those undocumented workers are Latinos, predominantly coming from Central America. On March 12, City Council held hearings about what Public Safety Director Michael Resnick called “the pernicious impact” of ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) on “certain communities” in Philadelphia. The “communities” he referred to are overwhelmingly the Hispanic and Latino communities, although some Asians and Africans are also at risk.
For well over the decade of the expanding number of Hispanic/Latino Philadelphians, ICE has had a treacherous liaison with local law enforcement. Police and prison officials have been obligated to share data and hand over undocumented (and even documented) workers to ICE.
That ended last week when Mayor Michael Nutter agreed to sign an executive order barring PPD and local prison officials from honoring immigration detainers.
This means ICE could no longer simply request detention, nor will they be able to do so randomly. A warrant would be needed and grounds other than immigration status would be required.
The hearings didn’t make much news outside City Council or the local Latino community. Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez called the new policy “huge” and “historic.” She said, “It shows what cities can do until Congress deals with comprehensive immigration reform.”
Councilman James Kenney said the new policy would exempt police from “doing the work of federal agents.”
Kenney also pointed out the problem that exists in the community: “When two young Mexican kids get into a fistfight and get hauled off to the Fourth [Police] District and there’s an ICE agent waiting in the lobby, that’s not right,” he asserted.
For several years now advocacy groups have been urging municipalities–particularly large cities with huge immigrant populations like Philadelphia–to rescind all quid pro quo actions between police and ICE. Other cities to enact similar bans are New York City, Newark, Miami, and New Orleans with the largest Latino communities in the country and San Francisco, with the largest Asian population.
Not surprisingly, conservatives here and throughout the nation decried the new policy, calling it a “gateway to amnesty” and that it would open the door to “criminal aliens.”
A small group at the City Council hearings held that view which was most popular during the Palmer Raids of the 1920s.
As philly.com reported, “John Ryan, Vince Weston, and Margaret Weston-Adelsberger held a banner promoting the group Victims of Illegal Alien Crime, voiac.org, which describes its mission as tracking crimes committed in the United States ‘by foreign nationals, including illegal aliens.’”
In his testimony before City Council, Ryan (seeming to forget his Irish forbears were vilified similarly a century ago) said Council members should not “yield to the
demands of leftist human rights groups” who want to “install radical-left mind control” and “embrace a world without borders.”
Unfortunately, the irrational extremist tone set by Ryan is endemic to the Republican Party, particularly its Tea Party affiliates. And while that matters little in Democratically controlled Philadelphia, it does have impact in the rest of the more Republican-controlled state and of course the nation as a whole.
The City Council hearings, while lifting one more burden from the shoulders of Philadelphia’s undocumented people as well as our overburdened Police Department, they only addressed one problem within the larger context of the wave of immigration in Philadelphia.
Last month the New York Times profiled Puentes de Salud (Spanish for Bridges of Health), a clinic in the heart of the Latino neighborhood off the Italian Market that is funded and run by both the University of Pennsylvania health system and volunteers. The non-profit provides
low-cost health care to those who are not covered under the Affordable Care Act.
The New York Times profiled the clinic in January, noting why it was necessary: “The new federal health care law does not provide assistance to illegal immigrants, who are generally ineligible for Medicaid, cannot get federal subsidies for private insurance and cannot use the new insurance exchanges to buy unsubsidized insurance with their own money.”
The article, which was reprinted in several business news websites for obvious reasons, also reminded readers that “Under the federal Affordable Care Act, such immigrants are exempt from the requirement to have insurance. They remain eligible for certain types of emergency care under Medicaid if they have low incomes and meet other criteria, and they may receive care from free and charitable clinics in some places.”
Like Puentes de Salud.
But what is the city doing to help these people? Does that demographic of 13 percent Hispanic/Latino Philadelphians even include the undocumented, or are they another percentage altogether, every day at more risk due to their shadow status in the city?
The hearings on ICE and subsequent executive order were meant to protect undocumented persons from harassment by immigration officials, but what is being done to integrate people fully into Philadelphia?
Puentes de Salud has maternity services now, but what happens to those children once they are born? How many parents of such children are working under-the-table jobs with none of the benefits native-born or naturalized Philadelphians can access?
Since 2006, Puentes de Salud has served thousands of undocumented people for various health issues. The New York Times article opens on a 38-year-old Honduran woman with leukemia being seen by the clinic. What are her prospects in these circumstances? How many people might actually be dying as they live in the shadows in the city that calls itself the birthplace of liberty?
The clinic’s co-founder, Penn professor of emergency medicine, Dr. Steve Larson, 53, was quoted in the NYT piece as calling Puentes, “an underground health system.”
Is this what we are doing now in Philadelphia? Setting up a permanent underclass of at-risk, undocumented workers whose children will continue to lead the same shadow lives their parents are forced to endure?
How is that American?
I was heartened by the City Council hearings, but disheartened by the national response from conservatives.
Despite the fact that the Obama Administration has deported twice as many undocumented people as the Bush Administration and despite the fact that the border patrols have been exponentially increased by Obama, an estimated 13 million undocumented people are living and working and having their children here in the U.S. Very few of those persons will be leaving the U.S. Which means immigration reform must become an essential discussion in Congress as well as in the cities where those people are living their anxious shadow lives.
While Philadelphia may already be heavily burdened with needy citizens, we cannot allow a whole swathe of Philadelphians, be they native-born or not, to be leading lives of poverty, misery and fear. That is not what this nation was predicated on and it is most certainly not what this city was founded on.
City Council needs more hearings to address the larger question of how the city will focus on undocumented workers going forward. It’s a critical issue and a critical time to address it. We must do so, so that the people we see every day in our restaurants and shops, hotels and streets, can live the lives our own immigrant forebears where able to forge.
This article first appeared in The Independent Voice March 19, 2014