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New Hope for Immigration Reform in the United States: An Analysis of the Proposed Legislation

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By Danielle L. C. Beach-Oswald

 The 2012 presidential election campaign demonstrated the
growing power of Latino voters in key states such as Texas and California and
gave new political life to long-stagnant efforts at immigration reform.  In this context, on April
16, 2013, a bipartisan group of Senators, known commonly as the "Gang of Eight,"
introduced an 844-page bill titled, The
Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and
Immigration Modernization Act of 2013
(S. 744) that, if passed, will significantly change the U.S.
immigration system, in both positive and negative ways.  It is currently estimated that 11.5
million undocumented immigrants are living in the United States, and the
legislation currently proposed is geared towards legalizing their status and
providing the first major overhaul of the immigration system since the Ronald
Reagan administration in the 1980s.


The analysis below draws largely from an extensive summary of
the bill's contents provided by the Democratic Policy and Communications Center
(DPCC).[1]  As of this writing, the bill has not yet been
voted on in the Senate or taken up in the House of Representatives and so its
contents are still subject to change. 
However, an analysis of the bill in its current form is warranted, as it
is the clearest and most comprehensive indication of the future of immigration
law in the United States. 


Major Changes

As it is currently written, the legalization of
currently-undocumented immigrants (who would acquire legal status) is contingent
upon several "triggers," not least of which would be expanded resources and
enforcement measures in the area of border security. To that end, the proposed
bill would allocate $3 billion to fund enhanced border and immigration security
measures, including the development of a border security fencing plan by the
Secretary of Homeland Security, a "mandatory and operational" Electronic Employment Verification
System (EEVS, more commonly known as E-Verify), and the implementation
of "a biographic
entry-exit system at air and seaports."


Registered Provisional Immigrant

The law would provide a new
form of relief called Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) Status.  Undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S.
before December 31, 2011 and have continued to reside in the U.S. would be able
to apply for RPI status.  In the long march towards permanent
residency and eventual citizenship, RPI applicants would be required to pay
multiple fines and fees and any back taxes, pass multiple background checks,
show that they are working to learn English (if they do not speak it already),
and be able to demonstrate economic self-sufficiency.  Once RPI status is approved, persons with RPI
status would retain such status for six years and be given employment
authorization as well as travel authorization, both of which would be significant
benefits for many people who have long been unable to legally seek gainful
employment or travel to their native countries. 
After six years, RPIs would need to file to renew their status, showing
they still meet all the eligibility criteria and paying additional filing fees.


10 years after acquiring RPI status, individuals would
be able to apply for permanent
residence. Such
applicants would be required to wait until the existing backlog of applicants
had been processed before adjustment of their status would be reviewed.  Three years after attaining permanent residency,
former RPIs could then apply for naturalization to become U.S. citizens.  All told, the time from granting of RPI
status to citizenship would come to at least 13 years.


The long wait before acquiring permanent residency seems
somewhat arbitrary, especially when applied to individuals who have already
been living in the United States for decades. 
Moreover, throughout the entire process, immigrants would have to pay at
least $2,000 in fines and hundreds more in fees along the 13-year path to
citizenship, thereby potentially excluding those unable to pay the fees. The
employment or income requirements for both RPI status and permanent residency
through RPI status also seem highly problematic, absent further guidance on how
such requirements would be enforced in actuality, as it seems that low-income
immigrants could be deprived of the benefits offered through the
legislation.  Moreover, even though the
proposed legislation aims to eliminate the creation of future backlogs, it is
questionable whether the existing backlogs could be cleared in the timeframe
allotted such that RPIs could in fact seek adjustment of status 10 years after
becoming RPIs. 


While the bill would offer previously unavailable relief to
many millions of individuals, it can also be criticized for the people it
excludes.  For instance, persons who
entered the United States after December 31, 2011 would be unable to benefit from the
bill's provisions.  In addition, many
individuals may likely be barred by acquiring RPI status because of expansive
definitions of certain criminal acts under existing immigration law.  For instance, if a person has committed three
relatively minor misdemeanor offenses, they may be ineligible for RPI
status.  Finally, the English language
requirement for adjustment of status could pose further barriers to otherwise
deserving immigrants. 


On the positive side, the bill as currently written would
codify many important parts of the long-dormant DREAM Act, allowing RPIs who
came to the U.S. before age 16 and earned a GED or high school diploma to apply
for permanent residency.  Moreover, the
law would also so-called 'DREAMers' to apply for naturalization after five
years as an RPI (rather than ten).  Although the
passage of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was a step in the right
direction, the proposed bill offers a permanent solution and path to
citizenship for the millions of individuals who came to this country as
children and have made the United States their home. 


Family Unity and
Employment-Based Immigration

Aside from the creation of RPI status, the proposed legislation
contains broad changes to the existing family- and employment-based immigration
system.  Legal immigrants who have been
in the United States continuously for ten years or longer would be eligible to
seek permanent residency, and permanent residents would be able to
"immediately" sponsor their spouses or children for permanent residency. This would
be a huge improvement in the current family-based immigration system, as it would
eliminate the grossly long wait that permanent residents have to endure for
their spouses and children to obtain legal status.  The bill would also enable "families with
approved petitions to work and live in the U.S. while waiting for their green
card" and would allow siblings short-term visitation periods. 


Despite all of the positive aspects of the proposed legislation,
there are several negative aspects that would potentially hinder family
unity.  For instance, sponsorship of siblings
for permanent residency would be eliminated, and children at or over 31 years
of age would also be ineligible for sponsorship from their US citizen parents.  While previously-filed petitions would
seemingly not be impacted, this would deprive many individuals of the right to
be reunited with their adult children (over age 31) and/or siblings, and
potentially leave recently-naturalized elderly individuals without family care
takers to assist them as they age.    


The bill also seeks to introduce a new merit-based system to the processing
of immigrant visas.  It is a complicated
point-based system, wherein prospective applicants for a so-called 'Track One'
visa would be prioritized based on "various factors, including educational
degrees, employment experience, and needs of U.S. employers, U.S. citizen
relatives, and age," as well as how long the applicant has been living in the U.S.,
while 'Track Two' visas would be granted to backlogged family-or
employment-sponsored applicants (waiting five years or longer) and to individuals
who have been legal permanent residents for at least ten years.


One problem with the point system is the clear prioritization it
gives to those immigrants who are already likely to benefit the most from their
training and economic resources, leaving low-wage and low-skilled workers in a
potentially indefinite wait period while their better-educated and wealthier
counterparts skipped to the head of the line. 


Despite my skepticism about the points-based merit system
contained in the proposed legislation, there are numerous improvements with
relation to the availability of certain employment-based visas.  For instance, it would increase the number of
H1B visas available each year, as well as increase the availability of visas
for certain low-skilled labor positions through the creation of a new "W" visa


concerns are being raised over bill's provisions mandating the national
implementation of the Electronic Employment Verification System (EEVS),
commonly known as E-Verify.  While government officials report
that E-Verify's accuracy has improved in the years since its introduction, the remaining
possibility for error means that some individuals will undoubtedly be
wrongfully denied employment to which they should be entitled.  Additionally, the system would potentially be expensive
to maintain, and civil liberties advocates, such as the American
Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
have expressed concerns that the
centralization of personally identifiable information (PII) poses risks to
Americans' privacy and increases the risk of identity theft.


Asylum Applicants

In my opinion, there would be at least two highly
significant improvements in the law governing asylum if the proposed
legislation is passed.  First and
foremost, S. 744 seeks to eliminate the one-year filing deadline by which all
asylum applicants must file their applications in order to be deemed eligible for
asylum.  For many years, the requirement
that an individual must file for asylum within one year of entering the U.S.
has deprived many individuals from being granted asylum.  Often, individuals fleeing their countries
with genuine claims of past persecution suffer from severe trauma, may not have
had a formal education, or are unknowledgeable about the legal requirements for
asylum.  Elimination of the one-year
filing requirement would mean that such individuals would no longer be prejudiced
based on their lack of knowledge of U.S. immigration laws.  Secondly, there would be cause for celebration
if the proposed legislation were passed because it would provide certain
at-risk persons in removal proceedings with legal counsel.  At present, while there is a right to counsel, there is no right
to have counsel provided for those in need, which deprives many people facing
deportation from relief from removal. 


As summed
up especially well in a recent
by Bill Frelick of
Human Rights Watch and law student Brian Jacek, a major challenge faced
by many asylum seekers, and one that the proposed Senate bill fails to fully
address, is the difficulty asylum applicants have supporting themselves
economically while their cases are being reviewed.  Many asylum applicants are denied the right to
employment while their applications for asylum remain pending, thereby
depriving them of the opportunity to support themselves.  As Frelick
and Jacek explain, the inability to work legally means that many asylum-seekers
not only cannot afford attorneys to assist with their cases, but they also are
pushed into the informal work sector, rely on assistance from friends or family,
or may even end up living on the streets. 
Unfortunately, S. 744 in its current form would not modify the existing
regulations on employment authorization for prospective asylees.



Supporters: Business, Labor, Religious Groups.  A
striking element of the recent push for immigration reform has been the broad
support it has received from many disparate sectors of the American political
spectrum.  Many sectors such as the
hospitality (restaurants, hotels, etc.) and agriculture
rely heavily on low-wage workers, many of them undocumented, and
would benefit from a normalization of their workforce as well as the ability to
bring in additional part-time or seasonal workers from abroad.  The technology sector, including industry
leaders such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, has
for increased opportunities to fill positions that they contend are
currently vacant due to a lack of qualified American workers. Many
labor unions
, meanwhile, view the normalization of undocumented workers'
status as an opportunity to increase union membership by organizing
newly-legalized RPIs.  Such organizers
believe that legalization would stem the so-called 'race to the bottom' in
which U.S. citizens and legal immigrants continually accept cuts to wages and
benefits in order not to lose out to their undocumented counterparts.  Many religious organizations have also lent
their support to the immigration reform push, though (as discussed below) that
support could waver if the bill is amended to include extension of sponsorship
privileges to bi-national same-sex partners. 
Finally, comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to
citizenship stands to benefit
elected representatives
from both major parties, helping to appeal to
Latino voters while demonstrating that bipartisan compromise is still possible
in a political climate that is often described as just as dysfunctional,
ineffective, and broken as the current immigration system itself.


Immigration Restriction Advocates. 
Immigration restriction and border enforcement advocates such as
Jim DeMint and conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation have derided
what they refer to as "amnesty,"
or any attempt to provide currently undocumented immigrants living in the
United States.  While it s strongly contested,
the Heritage Foundation recently released a report
arguing that legalizing the status of the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants
currently in the United States will cost the country over $6 trillion over
those immigrants' lifetimes.  Because the
public's attention is not yet fully focused on the proposed law, it remains to
be seen whether these arguments will gain traction, though a recent reporting
suggests that the majority of Americans (76% percent) favor passage of the
proposed immigration legislation.  If
such polling is accurate, it would suggest that there is sufficient bipartisan
support to overcome concerns raised by the outspoken critics of immigration


Same-Sex Couples.  One of
the biggest question marks currently hanging over the current reform effort
relates to the status of binational same-sex couples.  As
reported in Politico
, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat and member
of the 'Gang of Eight,' has promised to introduce an amendment to the proposed
bill that would allow U.S. nationals to sponsor their same-sex partners for
permanent residency (a move for which President Obama has also voiced
).  In response, according to
Politico, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio claimed that the amendment "will virtually guarantee that
[the bill] won't pass," though many Democrats reportedly remain skeptical of
that assertion.  This, the article
continues, is because support might waver or drop off entirely from the Republicans
and religious groups upon whose success the bill depends (if the bill fails or
only narrowly passes in the Senate, its chances in the House of Representatives
are greatly diminished). 


entire question of the status of binational same-sex couples could, however,
become irrelevant if the Supreme Court rules that the relevant portions of the
Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) are unconstitutional.  In that case, binational same-sex married couples
would be entitled to the same federal protections and benefits currently
available only to heterosexual couples.  In my opinion, failure to include rights for same-sex
couples would represent a major flaw in the legislation.  Truly comprehensive immigration reform should
not exclude U.S. citizens and permanent residents in same sex-relationships
from having the right to file petitions on behalf of their spouses.  


In summary . . .

There is still a long way to go before S.744 becomes law and some lawmakers,
such as Sen. Rubio, are skeptical as to whether or not it will ever be passed
as it is currently written.  While the
proposed bill contains several areas for concern, overall the enactment of
S.744 would be an enormous success for immigrants and immigrant rights
advocates.  Immigrants to the United
States have continuously contributed to this country culturally, politically,
socially, and economically. 
Unfortunately, the current immigration system has long been broken, and
has not adapted to evolving economic, familial, and humanitarian needs.
Immigration reform is in our country's best interests economically and reform
would address the harm and suffering of so many deserving immigrants who seek
to remain united with their families or otherwise wish to contribute to the
nation in positive ways.  The time is
long overdue for Congress to enact meaningful immigration reform, and the
majority of the provisions contained in the proposed bill would be a huge step
in the right direction.

[1] Unless noted otherwise,
all quotations are excerpted from the DPCC summary. 

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