Several local experts on the topic of immigration were asked to estimate the numbers of undocumented immigrants in State College, Pennsylvania.
Undocumented immigrants struggle in Pa
by Sara Post
Statistics on undocumented immigration in the Centre County region is a dark figure, little understood or studied.
Several local experts on the topic of immigration were asked to estimate the numbers of undocumented immigrants in State College, Pennsylvania. Numbers varied from zero to “about 100,” with most guessing somewhere in the middle. No one interviewed could say with any confidence how many live and work in State College.
“State College is a college town. It’s not a major place for immigrants to come to work, unless they are working for the university—in which case, they would need documentation,” said Melissa Landau-Rodriguez, director of the College Assistance Migrant Program at Penn State.
But this statement may be based more on assumption than fact.
An undocumented restaurant worker (who requested to remain anonymous) in State College asked by Voices about how many undocumented migrant families he was aware of in the area, he said he thought there might be “around 20. And I think the number is increasing.”
If not a visible issue in State College, the topic of undocumented immigration is present around the area. In December 2007, Altoona passed an ordinance prohibiting landlords from renting residences to those without U.S. documentation, and employers from hiring them.
The ordinance was only slightly modified from one that the city council of Hazelton approved earlier in 2007, which also decreed that employers must check immigration status before hiring workers. State College has no such ordinance, because according to local authorities, there is little concern.
“Centre County has few problems with illegal immigrants,” said police chief Denny Nau. “Occasionally the State Police stop a vehicle on I-80 with illegal immigrants. Our office does not generally get involved.”
A representative of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement noted on the phone that, similar to Nau’s statement, they “do not make regular checks of Centre County.”
The dangers, the payoffs of an undocumented life
“There are so many injustices that happen nationally to undocumented migrants because no one knows they exist there,” said Jenny Van Hook, director for Penn State’s Population Research Institute. “Many are abused at work but held hostage by their status. Theoretically, it makes sense that they wouldn’t switch jobs, without a gain in wages or security. [In other situations, the job] can be like indentured servitude, where the migrant owes their passage back to a person who aided their entry into the United States. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is happening to some degree in State College.”
Mary Faulkner of the Women’s Resource Center provided additional insight into problems that undocumented immigrants might face here.
“The majority of immigrants we advise are the spouses of international graduate students or researchers,” said Faulkner. “We want to provide a safe space for them, but there really isn’t an infrastructure here for immigrants to rely on. I think the interest is there, but it’s such a highly technical field.”
Faulkner explained that the Women’s Resource Center does not, as a policy, check the citizenship status of the sexual abuse victims they advise. But the Center has in recent years tried to include more of the international community and, as a result of their outreach, seen more international victims of domestic violence stepping forward. In some cases, local attorney offices are able to get migrants on a track towards obtaining a U-Visa.
“These visas are provided by the Violence against Women’s Act— but the act is up for consideration again this year,” said Faulker.
But the dangers to the undocumented immigrant extend beyond domestic violence to the workplace.
“Do you think it is just,” Voices asked the restaurant workers in an interview, “the way you are treated here? Do you feel like you don’t have any rights?”
“It is not fair, some of the things that the bosses do. There are cameras on us at work and it is very hard labor. But it is much better pay than in [the country where I am from].”
“Was it always so bad?” asked Voices.
“Maybe always worse economically than the USA, but it wasn’t so bad just 10 or 20 years ago… then about five years ago we could not grow our own food to sell so we came to America.”
International forces have driven the national rise in undocumented immigration. Trade agreements such as NAFTA, passed in 1994, have allowed for the flow of goods and capital across borders, while barring the same movement for persons by making entrance illegal and passage highly dangerous. The migrants interviewed for this article recounted walking through the desert for days, led by trafficking leaders who often belong to the same illegal groups that power the drug trade.
Among the immigrant aid groups that work on the Mexico-USA border is one called No More Deaths. Their work consists of delivering truckloads of water into the desert, and providing medical aid to those they encounter. In July 2012, representatives from No More Deaths visited Allegheny. A volunteer for the group explained that undocumented immigrants had come as far north as Pa because the route into the USA does not end after the checkpoint; most immigrants who illegally cross the border come through networks heading north, even to places as seemingly remote as Centre County.
Declining to offer more information on the topic of trafficking routes, the restaurant worker interviewed simply stated, “We had connections with other immigrants in State College.”
After the border checkpoint, the route becomes less physically dangerous and more legally dangerous. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are present in every city to detain and deport immigrants. If detained in Centre County, migrants are housed in either the York County Prison or the Clinton County Correctional Facility. No information was found as to how many State College immigrants have been sent to these jails.
Once in the United States, obtaining a visa can be near impossible. In October 2011, the National Foundation for American Policy reported that “a highly skilled Indian national sponsored today for an employment-based immigrant visa in the 3rd preference could potentially wait 70 years to receive a green card. The 70-year wait is derived from calculating that there exists a backlog of 210,000 or more Indians in the most common skilled employment-based category (the 3rd preference or EB-3) and dividing that by the approximately 2,800 Indian professionals who receive permanent residence in the category each year under the law.”
Centre County considers undocumented immigration
Despite that local authorities cannot pin down accurate numbers on undocumented persons, immigration has been given at least some consideration within Centre County. In 2007, the Centre Daily Times published “The New Challenges of American Immigration: What Should We Do?” Members included Nancy Kranich of the Public Issues Forum, Victor Romero and Eva Letwin of Global Connections. All three, along with 12 other members, have in the past year joined the new Penn State group: “The Interdisciplinary Roundtable on Immigration” run by Shoba Wadhia of the Dickinson Law School at Penn State.
“This group was formed to learn more about immigration in our area, and what measures could be taken to raise awareness,” said Landau-Rodriguez.
The roundtable will release its findings at Penn State at the end of August.
According to Landau-Rodriguez, Penn State University does not check status, but without citizenship students cannot access federal financial aid and would most likely be unable to attend. These are the more subtle issues concerning immigrants in Centre County, even if they do not fear immediate deportation by law enforcement officials.
“It can be very hard for high school students to enter college if they do not share the information with a counselor that they are undocumented… and why should they, because they are afraid,” said Van Hook.
She studies the performance of students in school whose parents are undocumented, and her findings suggest that the students underperform, “probably because of all the stress their parents live under and the fact that English is their second language.”
Due to issues surrounding undocumented immigration, some have called for immigration policy reform.
“This would be a very good time,” says Van Nook, “to do comprehensive immigration reform.”
Voices asked the workers: “Do you miss [your country]?”
“Of course,” one replied. “But we keep in touch with family on facebook, and we still cook tortillas.”