Immigration reform: Could it happen in 2013?

by Tammy Alexander

Approximately 11 million people live in the United States today without proper immigration documentation. About half crossed the border without authorization, while the rest overstayed a visa. An estimated 60 percent have lived in the U.S. for 10 or more years.

As our government deports over 400,000 immigrants per year, thousands of lives are uprooted, families are broken, and communities are no longer whole. Parents are taken away in middle-of-the-night home raids, or kissed goodbye in the morning but never come home.

The U.S. spends over $18 billion per year on immigration enforcement, more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.

Hardly anyone finds this situation acceptable. However, there are very different opinions about how to fix our broken immigration system.

The current debate

At the time of publication, a comprehensive immigration bill is being debated in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives has started to introduce several smaller bills (for up-to-date information including bill summaries, visit washington.mcc.org/immigration). Here are some of the main issues in the debate:

Path to citizenship

The Senate bill, as introduced, would provide a path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants. Individuals and families could apply for temporary status, receive work authorization and be able to travel outside the U.S. After 10 years, they could apply for a green card and three years later, for citizenship.

Fines totaling $2000 would be levied at various steps in the process. DREAMers (those brought to the U.S. as children) and farmworkers would have shorter wait times and smaller or no fines.

Some proposals in the House would stop short of full citizenship, or would require applicants to plead guilty to a crime of being in the country unlawfully and serve probation for 10 years.

Families

The Senate bill includes some good provisions to keep families together and reunite those currently separated. Undocumented immigrants could include some relatives on their applications; some family members already deported would be able to return. Current family members on long wait lists would be expedited.

However, U.S. citizens would no longer be able to bring their siblings or married children over the age of 30 to the U.S. A new “merit-based” visa would consider family ties with other factors such as education and employment.

In general, both the Senate bill and expected House bills are moving to reduce family-based immigration and increase skill-based immigration for high-tech workers and others with advanced degrees.

Temporary workers

Introduction of the Senate bill was delayed, in part, so talks between agricultural businesses and labor unions could yield a compromise acceptable to both. Business wants easy access to inexpensive labor. Unions want higher wages and protections for U.S.-born workers. The Senate bill contains better protections for temporary workers, including the ability to change jobs, bring family members, and eventually apply for citizenship.

A bill introduced in the House would expand guest worker visas but would not include better labor protections, the ability to bring family, or a path to citizenship.

Access to benefits

Currently, green card holders must wait 5 years to receive public benefits such as Medicaid or food stamps. The Senate bill would restrict undocumented immigrants on the path to citizenship from receiving public benefits for at least 15 years.

Border security

The Senate bill would allocate $4.5 billion in new spending for border security, with $1.5 billion earmarked for additional fencing. Two “triggers” must be met in order for other parts of the bill to take effect. One requires the administration to submit specific plans on how to improve border security within 180 days–no undocumented immigrant would receive temporary status until this happens. The second “trigger” sets enforcement benchmarks that must be met before anyone with temporary status could apply for a green card.

Prospects for reform

The last time the U.S. Congress tried to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, in 2007, it failed. Can a bill pass in 2013?

There are some encouraging signs. After the 2012 presidential election, a new bipartisan willingness to talk about immigration reform emerged for the first time in six years. Evangelical leaders have also joined the chorus of faith groups and other advocates calling for just reform.

But, compromise is difficult–between those who want a path to citizenship and those who decry that path as amnesty for lawbreakers; between those who want more border walls and those who think we have enough already. Move too far to one side or the other and you risk losing the small, fragile bipartisan consensus.

In the end, will a final bill contain more harmful provisions than good? Will the path to citizenship be too costly and too long and will enforcement provisions only serve to further militarize the border and continue to fill for-profit detention centers? Or, will there finally be an opportunity to help families, DREAMers, farmworkers, and others in a way that is timely and fair? These questions remain to be answered. But your voice can make a difference.

Action steps

There are many ways you and your church can help to push for an immigration reform bill that is just and humane:

Pray
– For immigrants.
– For the church.
– For political leaders.

Learn
– Read the news, skim reports, discuss a book on immigration in your book club.
– Get to know immigrant brothers and sisters in your community.
– Learn about your own family’s migration history.

Advocate
– Sign up for immigration action alerts (washington.mcc.org/alerts) to learn about legislation and participate in national call-in days.
– Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.
– Hold a public witness event such as a prayer vigil or forum.

Teach
– Teach a small group or Sunday school class.
– Organize a workshop (see box on page 2).
– Bring the MCC Migration Exhibit People on the Move to your church, college, conference or relief sale (see box).

Engage
– Find other groups in your area working for justice for immigrants.
– Volunteer with an organization that helps recent immigrants with documentation and other needs.
– Participate in a visitation program at a local detention center.

In order for immigration reform to pass, it will take the efforts of millions of committed individuals pushing it forward. Welcome the sojourner, not just with your heart but, when necessary, with your pen, your phone, and your feet.

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