To Immigrants, U.S. Reform Bill Is Unrealistic

Amanda Paulson, Faye Bowers and Daniel B. Wood, Arab American News (Dearborn Michigan), May 26, 2007

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, U.S. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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