Monday, September 19, 2011

Overstaying visa holders targeted by feds in terror sweep

The feds revealed Tuesday they're putting new scrutiny on immigrants who overstay visas. Agents are running overstayed-visa files through multiple security, immigration and law enforcement databases, a top Homeland Security official said.

They are automatically checking for national security risks, said John Cohen, the department's principal deputy coordinator for counterterrorism. In the past, officials had to manually check each one.

Cohen said at a congressional hearing on visa security that the new system is "a pretty fully baked approach to how we're going to deal with this issue."

Homeland Security has been under pressure to update visa screening since its creation - after four of the 9/11 hijackers were in the country on out-of-date or invalid visas.

Although the Obama administration said this summer that Immigration and Customs Enforcement should prioritize deportations - and allow noncriminals and those with family ties to the U.S. to stay - all overstayed visas will be vetted for security concerns, regardless of priority, Cohen said.

Before the department began automatically screening the visas this spring, a backlog of 1.6 million unchecked overstays mounted.

After running automated checks, they found that 800,000 had either fixed their visa status or left the country, Cohen said.

They then went through the 839,000 that were left and flagged 2,000 that warranted investigation for national security or public safety reasons, Cohen said.

Many of those were either already in jail or out of the country, but Cohen said that by July, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were pursuing a dozen new leads.

In their review of the visa program, the 9/11 Commission also recommended setting up a biometric exit program that would "log out" immigrants here on visas when they leave the country.

This was never fully put in place, and Homeland Security officials have said it would be too expensive.


Farmers edgy over new Alabama law

Keith Smith believes Monday's meeting between farmers and lawmakers is an opportunity to solve a difficult part of the immigration debate in Alabama.

At noon Monday, Smith — a Gold Ridge farmer — will join other farmers in a meeting state legislators from Cullman County and other areas to discuss labor issues facing the agriculture community under the pending immigration law. The meeting will be at Jack's Truck Stop Restaurant in Good Hope, a popular gathering place and frequent host for political meetings.

The seriousness of the issue, which farmers contend could wreck crop production and harvests in Alabama, is also shared by state Sen. Paul Bussman, R-Cullman, who voted for the bill.

While Bussman campaigned for a tough immigration law, he noted even before its passage that challenges were likely. He also has expressed a willingness to tweak the law under certain conditions — chiefly that workers become documented.

A common ground may be emerging for Monday's discussion. Bussman and Smith have both expressed interest in exploring the potential of establishing a work permit program for farm workers from other countries. Bussman wants a system in which the workers would be documented and pay the permit cost as a means of providing the state and counties money. But the senator stresses that whatever system can be adopted should provide a means of making the workers fall within an acceptable legal status.

“What I'm going in to get is input from the agriculture community. I want firsthand information about the issues they are facing,” Bussman said. “I've been in touch with ALFA (Alabama Farmers Federation) to see if they can attend. I'm open to any suggestions, but we've got to have people who are legal. What I'm talking mainly about is a work permit. If they can't find workers we could look at this, but we want to know who they are and where they are," Bussman said.

According to the state’s deputy agriculture commissioner, Brett Hall, small Alabama farmers have not found the going easy in trying to replace the undocumented workers with the kind of home-grown labor the new law’s advocates have claimed the profusion of illegal laborers was suppressing.

“[Agriculture commissioner] John McMillan has been on the road quite a bit this year, and when he was going through North Alabama — especially in Jackson and Etowah counties — there were people in the produce business who were complaining about all the workers who were leaving,” said Hall.

“They’ve advertised for workers to come out — they need anywhere from 30 to 90 workers in the picking season, and they pay about twelve to fourteen dollars an hour for day labor to pick squash, apples, tomatoes — and they can’t get anybody. Or, people will come out and do it for a couple of hours, and then they walk away. It’s hot and it’s hard work, and people just don’t want to do it, but these people [undocumented workers] will. They’re Latino workers, and they work hard.”

Echoing local farmer Smith, Hall said the sudden labor shortage hits Cullman County farmers as hard as any others.

“Cullman is the number-one poultry producing county in the state, and they’re heavily dependent on this labor, but I’m sure you’ve heard from farmers up there already about how severely they’ve been impacted.”

Senator Bussman, like many legislators who supported the immigration bill, campaigned on a platform that included establishing a tough law because of the federal government's failure to address the issue. Many lawmakers have said that constituents overwhelmingly favored a tough state law.

Smith said he understands the sentiment that drove legislators to create the law, which is currently being held up by a federal judge who is reviewing challenges. Nevertheless, the longtime sweet potato farmer also believes that voters did not get a full view of the complications the law would cause for farming.

“I still believe it was all politics. I think there was a rush to do this without fully considering the consequences,” Smith said. “This issue involves every family that sits down at a table to eat. You have to have the labor or you can't produce. The idea that Alabamians are going to come out and do these jobs, it's not going to happen."

Smith said Alabama is still primarily a state heavily populated by family farms in the agriculture community. He said federal guidelines for hiring migrant workers are too lengthy and expensive for family farms.

“I think the federal guidelines better suit the large, corporate farms. But in states like Alabama our ability to produce would be drastically reduced. Without an available labor force, the produce is going to come from Chile and China and places that don't have regulations that safeguard your crops," Smith said. "Somebody's going to have to take a stand against this. That's what we're attempting do and I think it's going to spread.”

Nonetheless, Smith said he is going into Monday's meeting with an open mind. He wants the exchange of ideas to be sincere and absent of any political positioning from everyone involved.

“This is not about politics," Smith said. "This is about farming and all the people of Alabama. We need to exchange some ideas and see what can be worked out. This is a public issue, not politics.”

Deputy commissioner Hall said his office does not keep official statistics on the possible number of undocumented laborers working on Alabama farms.

“We have no stats on that,” said Hall. “You’re the first ones to ask me that. All we do have are the anecdotal observations of people who have noticed, over the past year and a half, that the number of people from Latin American countries — especially Mexico and Guatemala — have been leaving, as the economy of Mexico has improved over the past 12 months. And, certainly, the other industries like construction in Alabama have been on the downslide.”

Even if the flow of outbound undocumented laborers was only a trickle before Alabama’s tough immigration law was passed earlier this year, Hall said the exodus became a flood as the law’s Sept. 1 effective date neared.

“In anticipation of the law that went into effect, starting maybe around Memorial Day, all we know is that a tremendous number of people have left the state — and they’ve left Georgia as well.”

If leaving town before the start date of the new law was their goal, the flight of undocumented workers may have been premature.

Federal judge Sharon Blackburn enjoined the new law from taking effect only days before Sept. 1, and is expected to issue a final ruling in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the law before the end of the month.

Federal judges in other states have already blocked similar laws, citing jurisdictional conflict that wrests the power to make and enforce immigration law from the federal government.


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