Working Towards Reform for Illegal Immigrants

By Emma Royal

For many years the reality of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the US has been a sticky problem looking for a solution. Talk of an amnesty makes many politicians close their ears. However, a bipartisan reform bill approved in the Senate in June 2013 allowed for a ‘pathway to citizenship’, which introduces the new concept of ‘legal status’ that makes a distinction between full citizenship and illegality but without the connotations associated with an amnesty, that illegal immigrants would be handed citizenship merely because their high number made deportation impractical.

Since the passing of the bill, its progress through the House of Representatives seemed to have stalled; but on January 8, House Speaker John Boehner (R), informed his party colleagues that leading Republicans were preparing a document that would lay out clear principles for new immigration legislation. This was late in coming: the Speaker had stopped the original June 2013 bill stone dead by saying his chamber would not support it, promising his own bill, which had not seen the light of day that year.

Some commentators have claimed that this lack of support for the Senate bill, and lack of an alternative, was evidence of Boehner’s opposition to reform as a principle. In fact no attempt at comprehensive legislation has ever been given a clear path towards becoming law – ObamaCare being only the most recent example. Instead, Boehner has provided strong leadership in the House of Representatives, working tirelessly on a series of simpler bills that would make smaller, incremental changes to address the various issues around the immigration problem. This new approach has received President Obama’s approval: ‘They’re suspicious of comprehensive bills, but you know what? If they want to chop that thing up into five pieces, as long as all five pieces get done, I don’t care what it looks like.’ On hearing this, Minority Leader in the House, Nancy Pelosi, began to bring the Democrats on board.

Boehner’s January 8 announcement identified several important issues, including improved US border controls, the strengthening of internal security that would prevent companies from easily hiring workers without documents, and procedures to facilitate the hiring of skilled workers, high-tech specialists and seasonal crop pickers. The question of what to do about illegal immigrants was left up in the air, subject to a meeting of House Republicans to take place at the end of January.

 ‘Legal status’ defined

To qualify for legal status, illegal immigrants would be expected to meet a series of conditions: they would have to admit to entering the country illegally, pass comprehensive background checks, pay any unpaid fines or taxes, pass tests in English and show a good knowledge of American civics. Legal status would mean they would no longer be at risk of deportation solely because they had entered the US illegally, as long as they had broken no other laws; that they would be authorized to work in the US; and they would have freedom of movement, with the right to exit and re-enter the US.

This latter point would perhaps be the most radical and welcome of the new rights for illegal immigrants, particularly for those who have been in the US for more than a decade, which comprises 60% of the illegal population, who cannot go home to visit their families for fear of being unable to return. Legal status would differ from naturalized citizenship in that they would have no vote, would be ineligible for government benefits, would not be able to have family members join them in the US, and could be deported if convicted of a crime. Legal status as defined in the Senate bill would have allowed illegal immigrants to achieve full citizenship after 13 years.

One in four of Californian children live below the poverty line – the highest poverty rate of any state in the US, which is exacerbated by the high number of illegal immigrants working for very low wages. The total number of illegal immigrants in the state stands at around 2.5 million. Fear of deportation has always prevented them from taking advantage of the services that the poor rely on to survive, which can create a downward spiral into greater poverty with restricted access to adequate housing, education, child care, financial aid, medical and mental health care, or help for alcohol or drug addiction. They struggle to survive and struggle against the loss of cultural identity, which can create divisions within families where children are more easily assimilated into a mainstream American way of life. By definition, illegal immigrants do not have a voice. Any legislation that helps lift them out of poverty and which creates a clearly defined path towards citizenship will go a long way towards correcting that. Such measures are beginning to be seen as not only good for the economy but politically expedient.

California is ready for change

California has been in the forefront of changes in attitudes towards illegal immigrants. In 1994, Californians had voted overwhelmingly in favor of Proposition 187, which prevented illegal immigrants from claiming benefits and made it mandatory that anyone violating immigration laws is reported to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This was eventually overturned in court, which ruled that California was ‘powerless to enact its own legislative scheme to regulate immigration’ or ‘to regulate alien access to public benefits.’

In May 2013, Governor Jerry Brown signed the Trust Act, which would prevent illegal immigrants arrested for a range of crimes from being handed to US immigration authorities where they would otherwise be eligible for release. He had originally vetoed the bill, but the legislature had modified it, adding to the list of serious crimes not covered, for which illegal immigrants could still be handed over to federal jurisdiction. These include serious gang-related crimes, drug trafficking, trading illegal weapons, child abuse and using children to sell illegal drugs. Governor Brown said that the bill now ‘protects public safety and yet also protects immigrants who are basically living upright lives and working hard for the people.’

This constitutes a remarkable change in California’s view of its immigrant Latino population, which is fast becoming the largest single demographic group in the state. It is inevitable that legislators will increasingly recognize this, both in California and Washington DC. However, on Capitol Hill, those meetings in January of the House Republicans have produced only further delay. On February 5, conservative Republicans made it clear that there would be no action on immigration legislation this year and that the party should avoid an internal battle over the issue until after the mid-term elections, when the Republican Party hopes to gain six seats in the Senate and win majority control. House Speaker John Boehner said the day before that the priority for any new legislation would be to secure the nation’s borders, but discussions were about ‘whether we should proceed, if we proceed and how we would proceed.’ With the Senate still favoring the comprehensive approach of the June 2013 bill, the stage is set only for further conflict.

Shah Peerally is an attorney licensed in California practicing immigration law and debt settlement. He has featured as an expert legal analyst for many TV networks such as NDTV, Times Now and Sitarree TV. Articles about Shah Peerally and his work have appeared on newspapers such as San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune, US Fiji Times, Mauritius Le Quotidien, Movers & Shakers and other prominent international newspapers. His work has been commended by Congress women Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Lee.  He has a weekly radio show on KLOK 1170AM and frequently participates in legal clinics in churches, temples and mosques.


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