Dr. Partha Banerjee is the Executive Director of the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network. He is also a freelance journalist in New York and holds a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and a PhD in plant biology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He the author of the book In the Belly of the Beast.

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The nationwide protests for rights and respect for millions of immigrants in U.S. are generating heated public debate on one hand, and angry backlash from restrictionists on the other. The heart of the debate, however, is whether undocumented immigrant workers deserve equality, fairness and civil rights the American way, or be criminalized and punished for their 'crime' to be here without papers.

Little is mentioned about the enormous economic contributions undocumented immigrants make to America. Even less is mentioned about the immigrants' social and spiritual contributions, and their incredible struggle, against all odds, for survival and dignity.

Undocumented laborers are an important part of the U.S. market enterprise. A substantial portion of their earning is spent on goods, services, and taxes (such as income- and property taxes, and excise items such as gas and cigarette taxes). There's more. A national report puts the U.S. social security taxes these workers contribute to the system at $8 -10 billion, annually, none of which can be recovered by them for any benefits. That is an enormous surplus that helps keep the country's social security system happy. No wonder we don't hear Social Security administration -- as opposed to Homeland Security - talking about rounding them up, or deporting them.

Anti-immigrant groups and politicians often exaggerate the costs of providing public services to undocumented workers and their families. Fact is, most undocumented immigrants in U.S. do not even use medical facilities unless it's an emergency, like a serious injury or the birth of a child. They just try to stay healthy, like the millions of ordinary Americans - Black, White, Yellow or Brown - with no health insurance. Critics might object that this is the most expensive kind of care (even though in many cases, hospitals carry a special charity fund to pay for such expenses under “Emergency Medicaid”). But with a humane health care policy for immigrant or non-immigrant alike, where people without papers or “valid” jobs can still obtain a basic medical care without being fearful of going bankrupt or being deported, U.S. economy can save up billions of dollars. Most undocumented teenagers don't attend college because they can't afford the high, out-of-state tuition, or are not allowed to enroll. Forcing 10-12 million people to live in U.S. without health or education is bound to cause serious problems in the future. Think France.

Even some conservatives acknowledge that the work most undocumented immigrants do is vital. As Ken Connor, the past president of the Family Research Council, said, "Our economy depends on illegal immigrants. Every day, many of these hard working laborers perform tasks that few Americans want to perform ". Doing dishes in the back of a plush restaurant, cutting meat and scaling fish at a grocery chain, cleaning supermarket floors, sewers and bathrooms in the middle of the night, picking apples, oranges, grapes and strawberries in pesticide-laden farm fields, and doing high-risk construction work at American homes and gardens which can cause injury are examples of the type of work that Connor may be referencing. And remember, the work, often done by Latino day laborers standing up on our street corners is back-breaking. Most are round the clock, with sub-minimum wages, no benefits, little respect, and near-absent lunch- or weekend breaks. It's widely known that many workers are even deprived of their pay.

Is this what U.S. stands for? The last time I checked, America had a civil rights movement decades ago that precisely talked about such discrimination, abuse, pain and sufferings. The glorious struggle of Black Americans also whipped up zealots' angry reactions. History repeats itself.

America is on the brink of "a new awakening" in political consciousness, Harry Belafonte said, not unlike the struggles of the '60s. But, we still have "miles to go before we sleep." It seems, the gains and pains of those days are now forgotten.

Some people argue that because the newest wave of pro-immigrant demonstrations are so spontaneous and new that they can't be compared to a much more politically organized civil rights movement of the '60s. But they fail to recognize that the street marches and rallies we're seeing now in America are the product of years of mass mobilizations by immigrant activists around the country -- especially against the post-9/11 atrocities against poor immigrants -- who organized countless jail protests, town halls, basement meetings, and kitchen-table discussions before they came to the point where it's been possible to rally millions around a xenophobic, cruel piece of legislation passed in December, 2005 -- the bill criminalizes the 10-12 million undocumented immigrants and their supporters as felons). Grassroots immigrant leaders worked shoulder-to-shoulder with peace, liberties and justice groups to galvanize strength. It's also strikingly similar to 60's with its various factions, doctrines, plans of action, even some conflicting leadership. Today's new struggle, even though led by immigrant activists, are not about immigrants only, it's really about rights and justice for all the marginalized, unprivileged people of America.

Undocumented immigrant workers across U.S. are people that we should be proud of and not scornful about. They work hard, raise their families, and carry strong moral values. Many of them tried, and failed, to get some kind of immigration document, because the system is so broken, cumbersome and expensive. They are here to stay, and we must give them their long-overdue civil and human rights. Immigration violation is not a criminal offense. A humane, non-criminalizing, comprehensive immigration reform with a clear path to earned citizenship is the only pragmatic solution. Anything else falls short. This is not amnesty, unlike what anti-immigrant groups such as FAIR or Minuteman and their supporters in the media and political parties are accusing. In fact, the bipartisan Senate bill (in spite of its many serious flaws especially on the issues of civil liberties, detentions, border militarization, and due process rights) proposes a citizenship path for the undocumented, which, if implemented, would take an individual and his family at least eleven to twelve years to become a citizen, and that too, after paying heavy penalties and back taxes for many years. Most of these people have already waited for many years, in poverty, exploitation and despair.

The civil rights movement in the sixties under the leadership of MLK called for emancipation from the shackles of poverty and despair. The new leadership of today’s immigrant rights movement is repeating the call. It's time we embrace the new civil rights movement.


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