To immigrants, US reform bill is unrealistic
For the Senate reform plan to work as intended, illegal immigrants would need to embrace its rules – not opt for business as usual.
On any given day in the Home Depot parking lot in the San Fernando Valley, from 100 to 200 day laborers – almost all undocumented – show up hoping for work. Much of the talk Friday was of the new Senate immigration plan – particularly its proposal to let illegal immigrants step forward and start down the path to legalization and, eventually, US citizenship.
"This is unquestionably an opportunity to come out of the shadows and into the sunlight," says Jefe Rodriguez, a middle-age contractor who says he makes about $200 in a good week. "However, $5,000" – the price tag to apply for permanent residency – "is way too much money, mucho dinero. We don't have that kind of money."
This reaction – "yes, but ..." – is one sign that the reforms could fall short, even if they were to become law, because illegal immigrants themselves may prefer business as usual to a regimen of fees and journeys home. Their early reactions range from guarded optimism to good-humored laughter at the idea that the plan, as laid out, could actually work.
Still, the view in Washington, where the Senate is to debate the bill this week, is that this fragile but bipartisan agreement represents a significant step toward finding common ground on a issue that has divided the country in recent years. The legislation is not without its critics, generating criticism from hard-liners on both sides of the immigration debate, but it is lauded by many as an imperfect compromise.
A significant concern outside the Beltway is that the requirements of the proposed bill may prove too burdensome. Many immigrants can't conceive of how to scrape together the fines and fees necessary to enroll in the program, or distrust the requirement that the head of household return to his or her country of origin.
Still, some activists see it both as a good starting point and an opportunity for many immigrants to find security.
"It's immature to say nothing is better than something imperfect," says Emma Lozano, president of Pueblo Sin Fronteras in Chicago. "How can you say that to someone who's life is in the balance, or who has already been separated from their family?"
Ms. Lozano is critical of many aspects of the legislation – the steep requirements to apply for legalization, the future shift away from a family-based visa policy to a skills-based one, the temporary worker program with no hope of permanency. But she says it's an important step forward that she hopes can be improved through negotiations, and a real achievement given Washington's current political climate.
As the details of the plan emerged last week, anti-immigration groups have been the most critical, calling the proposal a capitulation rather than a compromise, and denouncing the new "Z Visa" program and its eventual promise of a green card as amnesty.
"This is just an amnesty dressed up with some provisions to make it more appealing to skeptics," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that supports immigration restrictions. In addition to the path to legalization for current undocumented immigrants, the proposal includes increases in legal immigration, he notes: "A compromise would be keeping one and getting rid of the other."
Pro-immigrant groups, meanwhile, have been more warily optimistic, hailing the agreement as an important achievement even as they lobby to alter some of the stricter measures, particularly the future changes that would shift preferences for visas from family connections to skills, education, and English language ability.
"That is an incredibly radical change, which undoes the basis of our legal immigration system," noted Cecilia Muñoz, vice president for the office of research, advocacy, and legislation at the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group, in a press briefing.
Still, she and others praise the bill for providing both a path to citizenship as well as a plan to reduce the backlog of current family-based visa applications – an estimated 4 million applications from families who have been waiting as long as 22 years.
"Any deal will be criticized as amnesty by people who want to kill it, and some groups will fight anything that reduces family-based categories," says Deborah Meyers, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute. "But at the same time there are 12 million people here who would benefit now, plus millions of people in the backlogs, plus legal channels for future workers. You're talking about trade-offs for now versus later."
It's those workers themselves – far away from the difficult policy negotiations of the Senate floor and less aware of the political trade-offs that get a bill passed – who are in some ways the most skeptical. Even as they yearn for a way to earn legalization, and therefore security, many are inherently distrustful that a law that requires them to return to their native country would also guarantee them re-entry, and the $5,000 fine seems, to some, as out of reach as if it were $50,000.
"We would never be able to raise that kind of money to start the process," says Desmond, a girl who attends John Muir High School in Pasadena, Calif., and didn't want to give her last name, speaking through an interpreter. She has lived in America since kindergarten, with her uncle, grandmother, cousin, and aunts, and says she doesn't know any undocumented immigrants who could afford that amount. "Even more important, I would be scared that they are lying to us…. That they are just saying whatever they could to get all the illegal people and deport them."
In North Phoenix, where Salvador Reza runs a work center where some 85 to 110 immigrants wait in a graveled parking lot for employers to pick them up for landscaping, painting, and housecleaning jobs, Mr. Reza is somewhat more optimistic – he calls the proposal "a good start" – but is still skeptical.
In addition to the steep requirements for visa applications, he worries that adding more agents and infrastructure to the border control will further criminalize activity there.
"This will corrupt even more," Reza says. "It will create better networks of mafia that control it and become even more sophisticated."
And some immigrants say the plan, if implemented as is, may simply encourage them to return to their home country for good.
"Work is slow right now," says Ramiro Ruiz, a young man from Chiapas who's worked in Phoenix for the past two years, mainly as a landscaper. And he misses his family. Paying $5,000, he says, is out of the question. "I will maybe stay here two years, three maximum."
Margarita Medina, who crossed the border 19 years ago and has since earned a resident alien card by marrying a resident, says she's horrified by the proposed requirements, particularly the trip back to a home country.
"For families, this is terrible," she says, as she fills out a citizenship application – her second – in a South Phoenix office. "I don't ever want to go back, and it would be so hard to break up families."
The fragile Senate bill, which already has some lawmakers distancing themselves from it, will likely face significant changes even if it survives and makes it through the House. It's a process that some immigrant advocates see as a chance to improve the bill's weaknesses, though retaining bipartisan support could be tough with more measures favorable to illegal immigrants.
"We understand the value of this being introduced and moving forward, but we really need to have these problems fixed," says Roslyn Gold, chief counsel for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "If you have a program that the immigrants don't apply for, you don't have an effective program."
• Amanda Paulson reported from Chicago, Faye Bowers from Phoenix, and Daniel B. Wood from Los Angeles.