Friday, April 19, 2013

Boston and Immigration Reform

Like all Americans, I grieve for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.  I also grieve for what it does to the American psyche as terrorism once more raises its ugly head.  But as an advocate for immigrants, I also worry about how this incident will be used by immigration restrictionists to try to kill much needed immigration reform.  Xenophobia, like racism, is embedded deep in humanity (which is not at all to excuse it or commend it).  When American men gun down a congresswoman and her supporters, or shoot up a Colorado movie theatre full of people, or a Connecticut elementary school and its beautiful children, people think about mental illness and gun control.  When immigrants (no matter how long they have been here) commit an act of terror, we withdraw into xenophobia.  Forget the fact that statistically, the foreign born are much less likely to commit crimes in the U.S. than the native born.  Forget that even among criminal immigrants in the U.S., immigrants who have been here longer are more likely to commit crimes than more recent arrivals.  Once an immigrant commits a crime, we hear calls to shut down the border, as if anyone or any law can predict what somone admitted to the U.S. as a child refugee will do 10 years from now.  We demonize immigrant communities, even though those are the ones that can most help to solve these kinds of crimes. 

I saw it happen in 2001.  We are still recovering from the wave of anti-immigrant fear that covered the nation following the horrible events of 9/11.  Much of the problem in the current immigration system stems from Congressional refusal in the wake of 9/11 to re-authorize section 245(i) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA), coupled with terrible, misguided 1996 legislation that created enormous bars to admission to the U.S. for visa violators, regardless of their relationships here.  Section 245(i) permitted non-criminal immigrants who had overstayed visas or entered illegally, but who were otherwise eligible to immigrate based on family or employer sponsorship, to pay a substantial fine and complete the immigration process.  Without that law, they were unable to regularize their status in the U.S., even though they had the relationships that we have recognized as warranting permission to remain here.  With no way to get right with the law again, they resorted to remaining here illegally.  Gladly they would leave, pay fines, and do whatever it takes to get legal status in the U.S., if there were a roadmap they could follow.  But Congress did not fix the legislative problem and they stayed, grew, and became part of an enormous underground culture.

Now we are on the cusp of fixing those legislative problems to create a better system of immigration to the U.S.  A fix that increases security, but also increases the possibilities of enormous benefit to the U.S. that comes from a better immigration policy.  We can’t let fear once more take over and keep us from doing the right thing.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Immigration Rally Washington DC 2013

I’m writing this as I’m on my way back to KC from Washington, DC.  I went for AILA’s (American Immigration Lawyer’s Association) annual national day of action to lobby congressional offices for immigration reform.  I’ve made this trip many times in the past, but this time, our reception seemed different and there was a lot of excitement in the air.  On Wednesday, there was a rally in front of the Capitol.  I don’t know how many were there, but likely tens of thousands.  There was a sea of flags and signs waiving, chanting, and speakers (I’ll post pics later).  Fellow immigration lawyer Micki  Buschart and I made our way through the crowd with borrowed signs.  Most of the flags were U.S. flags, but also many flags from around the world,  including one I saw from Nepal (I had to ask the man what flag that was).  There were large contingencies from various unions present, which was encouraging, as well as teachers, the NAACP, Asian-American organizations, etc..  To look at the crowd, you could see that there were many there who had no voice and no real influence but wanted to support in whatever way they could.  I saw church groups, Budhist monks, and just a wide variety of people from lots of sections of American culture.  It was hot; over 90 degrees.  I had to borrow some sunblock.  After about 3 hours, I had to go back to the hotel, but the rally was still going strong.

The crowd was hopeful.  Me too, but I also had to remember that in 2007 we were also very hopeful and nothing happened.  Not even the Dream Act could pass even though it had very broad support among the public.  I remember political insiders telling me absolutely that comprehensive immigration reform was going to happen that year.  It did not.  Now we are hearing it again, so any optimism I have is still very cautious.

Still, I have to say the tone is much different now than it has been for the past several years.

The next day about 400 immigration attorneys and friends from around the country visited our congressional representatives.  Our delegation from Missouri and Kansas included Jim Austin, Ken Schmitt, Angela Ferguson, Micki Buschart, Lynda Callon, Erika Jurado (and some others not coming to mind right now).  We tried to hit as many from Kansas and Missouri that we could in one day. 
I'm also excited by the fact that next week, a coalition of religious groups will be visiting the Capitol to argue for immigration reform. In 2007, I don't remember churches, particularly evangelical churches, being as committed to helping the stranger as I see now.
Why reform?  Our current immigration laws do not meet our national needs and do not represent justice for our people.  There are millions of people in this country who have no other options to legally be a part of this great country.  They have family here.  Many have been here for decades.  They have employers that desperately need them and want them to stay. Yet they have no options under our present system.  There are also people here legally who have to wait decades for approval to stay permanently because of long lines and visa quotas.  Last year, over 80,000 parents of U.S. citizen children were deported, most of whom had no criminal violations.  We deported more people last year (over 400,000) than we ever have in our nation’s history.  Many of them had their only offense in being here without authorization, trying to support families and work in a system that did not offer them a path to remain here legally.  The current system is incredibly complex and devastatingly unforgiving.  

 Even those who have sponsoring employers and have never violated their status here find insurmountable roadblocks.  This year, professionals like engineers, teachers, IT and telecom specialists, all in demand, and who filed for their work visas on the first day available, will have to undergo a lottery to see who gets a work visa and who doesn’t.  Most of them are educated here in the U.S. and many will be sent home to find jobs that compete with U.S. companies.  It’s a ridiculous situation that hurts our economy.  One testimony before congress compared it to educating foreign officers at West Point and the Naval and Air Force Academies, and then sending them away to join some army of another country.  Makes no sense to educate people in fields we need, and then send them away to compete with us.

I’ve made this lobby trip several times in the past.  Honestly, there were several times where congressional offices didn’t want to discuss anything to do with immigration and basically kicked me out of the office.  I had many cold, rude receptions.  But elections make differences.  This time, even offices I knew would not ultimately vote for immigration reform, were still cordial to us and willing to hear us out.  Some that were rock solid in their opposition to anything that sounded at all like amnesty told us they would keep an open mind.  Some were very supportive of business immigration issues, but not family issues.  But I think we need to work on both, and do them together in a comprehensive, not piecemeal, way.

By way of very short summary of those offices I visited or heard about this trip from our delegation, McCaskill is “optimistic” for meaningful reform; Cleaver is 100% supportive, Moran and Yoder are interested in helping businesses, but skeptical about the family side of things;   Leutgemeyer , , , well, he had an autographed picture of Rush Limbaugh on his wall, but his office was still very cordial; Long, pretty much the same; Hartzler and Blunt the same as well.  I’m hoping to go to Graves’ office when I get back, but the last time I saw him, he was jointly appearing with Kris Kobach, so I don’t expect much there, but maybe we’ll be surprised.

So here’s where we are today, and things are going to change very rapidly.  The senate is in the final stages of drafting a bill right now.  I’m expecting it to be published either Monday or Tuesday.  The House is also working on a bill, but won’t start hearings on it until after the Senate is done.  The Senate has already scheduled a hearing on Wednesday for the bill, so we should see it and some summaries very quickly.  The hearings on the bill may take awhile.  The Senate will need to have a full debate on it.  Let’s hope it isn’t just a show with nothing happening, but they need to examine the parts of it very carefully.  Expect lots of compromise, including many provisions that are not good, but may be needed to ensure that something passes.

As for the contents of the Senate bill, expect it to provide much more border security, but also paths to eventual citizenship for people here.  There will likely be fines, long probationary periods, and lots of hoops to go through.  It will be tough on criminals, but maybe it will restore some discretion to immigration judges to consider other factors, like families, rehabilitation, etc.  The 3 and 10 year bars for illegal entries and overstays may still be there, but with better opportunities for waivers. 

Today we heard from representatives of the DOL, DHS, ICE, USCIS, as well as persons involved in drafting the bill from Senator Rubio and Melendez’s offices, but they could only be very general in what they said until the bill is published and debate starts.  Encouraging was the fact that both of the persons we heard involved in drafting the bill were former AILA attorneys, so they should have a good understanding of the issues and have some good sympathies for immigrants, although coming from two different political parties.  We heard a couple of times that there would be things in the bill that we would like very much, and some things not so much.  My attitude is, almost anything is better than what we have right now.

The bill itself is reported to be between 1000 and 1500 pages (Oh boy), so give it time for debate and don’t believe every rumor floating around about what is going on.  It’s a complex area of the law and there will be nothing very simple about what happens with this.  Expect penalties and long waits for those here without authorization, but eventually getting to be a part of the American Dream.  Maybe shorter waits for those in certain categories, like Dreamers and Agricultural workers. We are all, of course, very anxious to see the details.

Remember, there is no new law yet.  This is just the beginning.  The bill has to be published, then debated, then voted on. If it passes the Senate, the House of Representatives will look at its bill, debate it, and vote on it.  Then a committee will have to see if the two bills can be reconciled and approved so that there is only one bill.  If it gets that far, then it goes to the President, who must sign it before it becomes law.  Then the agencies, like USCIS has to publish forms and get ready to start taking applications.  A lot has to happen, but so far it is on the right track.  There will be groups that want nothing to happen other than enforcing our current unjust laws.  They will want to filibuster and kill the debate.  They will misrepresent the issues and the facts.  Let’s not let that happen and fight for a good and just law that will work for the U.S. and its immigration needs for years to come.