To Schenectady resident Monica Arias Miranda, who heads the Capital Region-based Hispanic Coalition NY, President Barack Obama’s speech on immigration reform last week was “wonderful.”
“He does uplift you,” she said.
But Arias Miranda is looking for more from the president. Specifically, she wants to see a concrete proposal.
“We’re waiting for content, and we’re not getting that,” she said.
The president has expressed support for a bipartisan immigration proposal unveiled Tuesday by the Senate’s “gang of eight,” a group that includes Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, and Democrats Michael Bennet of Colorado and Charles Schumer of New York. The proposal would create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S., as well as a temporary guest worker program, while also strengthening border patrols by providing new equipment such as drones and increasing the number of agents near ports of entry.
Another measure would create an employment verification system to prevent identity theft and end the practice of hiring illegal workers.
Arias Miranda and other activists who support immigration reform said the proposal is something of a mixed bag. It contains measures that pro-immigration groups have long supported, such as a pathway to citizenship for people who are already living in the country, but would also step up enforcement measures they consider unnecessarily harsh.
“On one hand, there’s an increased sense of hope,” said Fred Boehrer, who heads the New Sanctuary for Immigrants in Albany, a group that assists illegal immigrants. “We’re seeing the two major political parties in agreement about looking for a way to provide a pathway to legal status. That’s something new. But there’s still an emphasis on punitive responses.”
The most controversial piece of the Senate proposal appears to be the call for a pathway to citizenship. Some conservatives have expressed concerns about rewarding people who moved to the U.S. illegally, and groups such as the Seattle-based Federation for American Immigration Reform have said it will increase the number of illegal immigrants who move to America.
Some Republicans have voiced support for creating a system that would allow illegal immigrants to obtain legal status but stopped short of endorsing a pathway to citizenship.
The path to citizenship outlined in the gang of eight immigration proposal is designed to be tough. It would require illegal immigrants to register with the government, pass a background check and pay a fine and back taxes in order to earn “probationary legal status,” which would allow them to live and work legally in the United States.
People who fail a background check or are deemed a security threat would be ineligible for legal status and subject to deportation.
Immigrants given probationary legal status would then be required to “go to the back of the line of prospective immigrants, pass an additional background check, pay taxes, learn English and civics, demonstrate a history of work in the United States, and current employment, among other requirements, in order to earn the opportunity to apply for lawful permanent residence.” People who complete these requirements would eventually earn a green card.
Separate pathways for obtaining citizenship would be established for young immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, and for people who have been working in the agriculture industry.
Arias Miranda said the current citizenship process “is anything but user friendly. It discourages people from doing the right thing, for lack of a better word. ... People are not asking for the process to be free, but it shouldn’t be impossible.”
She said the gang of eight proposal, with its strict requirements and talk of fines and back taxes, suggests that illegal immigrants will continue to be viewed and treated as criminals under the law.
“There shouldn’t be so much focus on penalties,” she said.
She noted that a record number of deportations occurred during Obama’s first term and that the vast majority of those deported were non-violent.
Arias Miranda came to the U.S. from Costa Rica at the age of 13 in the mid-1980s and has since become a citizen. She said that she and her siblings arrived a couple of years after their mother, who obtained green cards for them while working at a textile factory in Connecticut. “We had papers, but my mother was still treated like she was undocumented,” she said.
New Sanctuary’s Boehrer said that illegal immigrants in the Capital Region who end up in deportation proceedings often do so as a result of possessing a fake driver’s license. “For undocumented people to be able to obtain legal status will open so many doors for them,” he said.
He recalled the challenge a teenager who graduated from Albany High School faced in going to college because she had moved to the U.S. illegally as a child.
“She was bright,” he said, “but she had no social security number, and she wasn’t able to get financial aid. It was a couple years before she was able to go to college.”
David Dyssegaard Kallick, who directs the Latham-based Fiscal Policy Institute’s Immigration Research Initiative, said the immigration reform measures being considered are designed to make the country’s immigration system “function within controlled parameters” and are unlikely to lead to an immigration boom. The idea, he said, “is to create a situation where everybody who is here is here legally. It’s about taking immigrants who are already in the labor force, in the shadows, and bringing them into the normal labor system.”
The immigration reform proposal calls for allowing “more lower-skilled immigrants to come here when our economy is creating jobs, and fewer when our economy is not creating jobs.” Kallick said this makes sense — illegal immigration tends to slow when the economy is bad and pick back up when it’s good.
“Immigrants go where there are jobs,” he said.
The New York Civil Liberties Union has long supported creating a path to citizenship.
In 2009, the organization put out a position paper describing the country’s broken immigration system as “a human rights crisis in New York and across the United States — immigrant homes are raided; hundreds of thousands of people are detained, some indefinitely, in inhumane conditions and without medical care; and unscrupulous employers prey upon the undocumented.
“Our immigration system is so flawed that even documented immigrants regularly suffer from many of these problems.”
Melanie Trimble, executive director of the Albany chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the American Civil Liberties Union actively supported immigration reform during Obama’s first term and was disappointed when nothing happened. Now that immigration reform appears to have a chance of passing Congress “we’re ramping up our support again,” she said.
Other organizations are also waiting to get involved in the fight over immigration reform. The Business Council of New York State is looking at the gang of eight proposal and has reached out to its members for feedback, said Robert Lillpopp, the organization’s director of communications.
The gang of eight plan would also provide incentives for well-educated foreigners to come to the U.S. to work. Under the proposal, immigrants who have received a doctorate or master’s degree in science, technology, engineering or math from an American university would be given a green card.
Until recently, the issue of comprehensive immigration reform appeared politically dead in the water. That began to change when Obama won re-election with three-quarters of the Latino vote. This overwhelming show of support prompted calls from both Democrats and Republicans to fix what leaders on both sides of the aisle described as a broken system.
According to a 2011 study by the Pew Hispanic Center, there were about 11.2 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. in 2010, and about 8 million of them were working. This represented a decline from 2007, when the country’s illegal immigrant population peaked at 12 million.
In New York, the illegal immigrant population has also declined, from an estimated 825,000 in 2007 to 625,000 in 2010, a drop the Pew study characterized as “statistically significant.”