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Why It Matters When Immigrants Keep Quiet

A critical, if overlooked, element of immigrant integration is the ability of newcomers to engage with their communities and take part in upholding our laws. Make no mistake: it benefits us all when immigrants and their families begin this process. As such, receiving communities have a distinct obligation to educate immigrant families about their civic responsibilities.

A recent Los Angeles Times article highlights an innovative city program intended to advance this goal. The LA office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been conducting bilingual seminars to educate immigrant employers and business owners about their duty to uphold federal anti-discrimination laws. The effort reveals a two-fold problem in the workplace: many immigrant workers aren’t aware of legal protections against race, gender or national origin discrimination in the workplace—or if they are, many remain hesitant to file complaints due to a perceived stigma. At the same time, their employers, largely immigrants themselves, aren’t aware of these employment laws and protections. Lacking the testimony of immigrant workers, supervisors and business owners, workplace crimes risk going unreported and unpunished, and the labor standards we all rely on are degraded.

Outside of the workplace, it’s equally important that immigrants collaborate with local police in upholding criminal laws. From language barriers to generalized fears of authority, various factors prevent some immigrants who are victims or witnesses of crimes from reporting to police. Following a violent crime in immigrant-rich Flushing, Queens, only a few witnesses came forward; one local leader unpacked some of the cultural factors keeping immigrant witnesses quiet:

Our culture needs to improve … If your community is not safe and the streets around you are not clean, then it does directly affect you. Some people might not see this as their home. They see it as a place to make money and send home. It is disappointing…America is our new home, and we have to treat it as such.

This mindset damages the prospects for immigrant integration, but more troublingly, it also clearly undermines public safety. Without the help of all residents, local police cannot effectively catch criminals, some of whom intentionally victimize recent or undocumented immigrants. And the recent involvement of police in enforcing immigration laws further complicates the task. When local police act as immigration agents, immigrants are left even more reluctant to share information for fear of revealing their immigration status or that of a relative. We all have a stake in ensuring that this doesn’t happen. As former NYC District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said, “This unwillingness to cooperate with local law enforcement presents an obstacle to stemming crime in the city as a whole.”

It’s encouraging that the federal government offers a tool to law enforcement and immigrant rights groups hoping to reach across this barrier and boost immigrant cooperation with police. The U-Visa program gives legal status to victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, and other crimes if they agree to help authorities investigate and punish perpetrators of violent crime. For the first time, USCIS issued all 10,000 visas available through the program to immigrant crime victims. In the Bay Area alone, a group of local advocates secured over 770 U visas for their clients, around 12 percent of the national total. Despite its limited scope, the U-visa program shows that the federal government both recognizes and values the role immigrants can play in bolstering public safety.

If immigrants and their families are to be integrated into our communities, they must participate fully and without hesitation in enforcing the laws that make our workplaces fair and keep our streets safe. This is in our shared interest. And as such, community leaders and the elected officials who represent them must continue to advocate for policies that further immigrant civic participation and integration, in its many forms.

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Posted at 5:11 PM, Jul 21, 2010 in Immigration
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