In what is seen as a hopeful if flawed sign of possible immigration reform, however, the Senate has introduced a bill aimed at restructuring what has rightly been called our broken immigration system. Whatever the structure of the eventual reform, the U.S. bishops and immigrant advocates in general have outlined the basics of what a humane system of reform should entail. These include a legalization program that allows undocumented persons to earn permanent residency, a program that protects the human rights of foreign-born workers and prevents displacement of U.S. workers and an emphasis on family reunification.
The House has already introduced a bipartisan bill that most advocates see as an acceptable start. The Security Through Regularized Immigration and Vibrant Economy Act, known as the Strive Act, provides a path to legalization, protection from exploitation of foreign-born workers and promotion of family reunification. Bishop Gerald Barnes of San Bernadino, Calif., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Migration, has called the Strive Act a realistic plan for bringing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. But the act also has its shortcomings. Critics note, for example, that Title II could place refugees fleeing persecution at risk of deportation if they had resorted to false travel documents in order to escape.
Some immigration restrictionists claim that undocumented immigrants take away jobs from U.S. citizens. It cannot be denied that unscrupulous employers sometimes prefer the former because they can pay them less in off-the-book wages than citizen workers would demand. But it is also true that the presence of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, has led to the creation of new jobs. A 2006 study by the Pew Hispanic Center, moreover, found no evidence that more immigration has resulted in increased unemployment among U.S. citizens.
The proposed Senate bill aims at granting legal status to the millions of undocumented persons already here. They could stay and apply for a Z visa, good for four years and renewable, provided applicants pass a background check and pay fines and penalties. The total cost to apply for permanent residence, though, could be as high as $10,000an exorbitant sum for most undocumented people. And under the so-called touch-back provision, applicants must return to their own countries before applying for legal permanent residencea perilous step for those fearful of being denied re-entry. A point system for incoming immigrants would focus on job skills, education and proficiency in English. Opponents of this provision consider it unfairly skewed toward skilled workers, sometimes at the cost of family reunification. Too little emphasis, in fact, is placed on family aspects of the bill. For it would virtually wipe out most of the family preference categories and put a cap on the number of parents of citizens who can enter annually. Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., told America that such anti-family provisions virtually assure a new flow of undocumented people.
Among other contentious aspects of the Senate bill is a guest worker program for up to 600,000 foreign workers to fill jobs, mainly in agriculture and industry, that could not easily be filled by American workers. Such a program would need strong protections against the kinds of exploitation by unscrupulous employers described in a March report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Close to Slavery. The Senate bill would allow workers to enter on two-year visas, but they would have to go home for a year before reapplying. Many, however, might choose to remain and go undergroundanother worrisome factor, since the bill offers them no path to citizenship. Under-standably, unions have condemned this provision, fearing that it might be used to depress wages for U.S. citizens.
any bipartisan bill that emerges from the Senateand much debate is yet to comewill have to be reconciled with the Strive Act, or whatever bill emerges from the House. If no acceptable reform bill is passed by both houses of Congress this year, the matter may be postponed until after the presidential elections. This is undesirable, because many undocumented persons already here would continue to remain in the shadows, living in fear of detention and deportation. Without comprehensive and humane immigration reform, our broken system will remain broken. That must not be allowed to happen.