The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

New Immigration Reform Bill Pleases Rights Groups

by Jessica Azulay

After months of collaborating with immigrants’ rights and labor groups, a major immigration initiative is introduced into both houses of Congress, offering new hope to undocumented workers and their families.

May 6, 2004 – Democratic lawmakers have unveiled comprehensive immigration reform legislation meant to help fix what they said was a badly broken immigration system.

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If passed into law, the act would provide undocumented immigrants living in the United States a way to gain permanent legal residency. Called the Safe, Orderly, Legal Visas and Enforcement Act of 2004, or SOLVE Act, the bill also provides for a temporary worker program, complete with workers’ rights safeguards, as well as provisions making it easier for immigrant families to reunite and stay together.

The legislation was introduced Tuesday by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and Representatives Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois) and Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), and is largely seen as the Democrats’ answer to President Bush’s immigration proposal announced earlier this year. While Bush’s bill angered most immigrants’ rights organizations, Democratic lawmakers said their bill was the result of numerous discussions with such organizations as well as labor unions. For the most part, labor and rights organizations have responded with resounding enthusiasm to the Act.

"This bill provides real solutions to the problems that plague our current broken immigration system," said Vibiana Andrade, of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). "Every effective policymaker and legislator should support it," she continued. "Latino immigrants would no longer have to live in the shadows, and will have the opportunity that so many past immigrants have had -- to work hard, raise their families, and make a better life for themselves." Andrade’s organization is a nonprofit advocacy groups for the rights of Latinos.

Unlike with Bush’s proposed immigration plan, the Democrats’ plan gives workers who participate in this temporary worker program to opportunity to pursue permanent legal residency.

For undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States five years or more and who can prove they have worked at least a total of two years, the SOLVE Act would offer permanent legal residency.

In order to qualify under this "earned adjustment program," applicants would have to pay income taxes on their earnings or establish a payment plan, demonstrate basic English and civics skills or enroll in citizenship classes (with some exceptions pertaining to age and disability), obtain FBI and Department of Homeland Security clearance, undergo background and medical checks, and register with the Military Selective Service.

Under the proposed Act, those who have not been in the United States for five years or cannot prove they have worked the required amount of time could apply for "transitional status." After achieving this status, they would be eligible to apply for permanent status after working two of the following five years.

The principal applicant’s spouse and children (21 years old or younger) would also be eligible, provided clearance by the same background checks.

The Act would allow only those who were physically present in the United States on May 4, 2004, the date the Act was introduced, to apply for the residency status it offers. Currently there are an estimated ten million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States.

The Act would apply to people who are currently detained or facing deportation on visa violations. At present, immigrants locked up for visa violations represent more than a tenth of the total US prison population, according to the US Bureau of Prisons.

"The SOLVE Act includes a broad legalization program for persons who have been living and working in the US, paid their taxes, and otherwise obeyed the law, allowing millions of undocumented workers to come out from the shadows and participate fully in American life and in the formal economy," said the National Council of La Raza, a national Hispanic civil rights group, in a written statement.

Another section of the Act seen as very important to immigrant families provides for family reunification by easing caps on the number of family members who can apply for visas.

The bill would also do away with punitive, which currently keep people who have been deported for visa violations out of the US for three to ten years.

Jack Martin, a spokesperson for the Gamaliel Foundation, an interfaith network of congregations pushing for immigration reform, spoke about the importance of immigration reform that reunites families.

"The government’s current immigration policies separated a mother from her 2-month-old baby," said Martin in a press statement. The mother, Marie Lydie Adji, was then deported with her young daughter and her three-year-old son to the Ivory Coast in West Africa, said Martin. "The family has been cut in half - the husband and the couple’s five-year-old child stayed in America," he continued. "This tragedy is happening everyday all across our country, our current immigration policies are just outrageous. This legislation will be the best fix for a broken system."

The Act also contains provisions for a temporary workers program, which allows 350,000 future workers to apply each year for jobs in the United States. Rep. Gutierrez referred to the temporary workers measure as a "break the mold" program because, unlike President Bush’s proposed work program, it contains several worker safeguards intended to prevent exploitation of noncitizen workers by US employers. Specifically, it requires employers to offer the same wages, benefits and working conditions offered to US citizens; ensures the right to join a union and collectively bargain, and requires employers to notify foreign workers of all their rights.

"This bill will, over time, replace a chaotic, deadly, and illegal flow of exploitable workers and desperate family members with a safe, orderly, and legal flow of workers with full labor rights and family members with legal immigrant visas," said Frank Sharry, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, an organization advocating policies that embrace immigrants. Many labor unions have endorsed the SOLVE Act, seeing it as integrally important to the struggle for workers’ rights.

"The fact is that meaningful immigration reform is a high priority the AFL-CIO," said John Sweeny, president of the national federation of labor unions AFL-CIO at a press conference introducing the SOLVE Act. "We know that our workplace rights, our economic security, our future are linked to that of immigrant workers. If unscrupulous employers can exploit immigrant workers’ status, violate their rights, and crush their freedom to choose to join a union, then it will be harder for non-immigrant workers to exercise their rights and build a better future. But when immigrant workers have their rights respected, then the rights of all workers are safer and stronger."

Unlike with Bush’s proposed immigration plan, the Democrats’ plan gives workers who participate in this temporary worker program to opportunity to pursue permanent legal residency.

"The President's plan says, ‘Come, work and adios.’ Our legislation respects workers," he said. "Instead of second-class immigration status and a clear exit sign, we offer the same welcome mat that has been a fundamental part of our nation's proud history."

There are a few concerns with the legislation among immigrant rights advocates, however.

Spokespeople for the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR), an immigrant rights organization, called the Act an "important step towards genuine and fair immigration reform," but voiced questions about some of its provisions.

Claudia Gómez, a fellow at NNIRR, said that since current immigration law requires applicants for permanent status to prove they can support themselves and their family, further requiring people to show their work history only added more steps to the already difficult process and seemed unnecessary.

Gómez also voiced skepticism as to how the current backlog of applications would be dealt with. She said she did not see anything in the proposed legislation that would address the prolonged wait of those already in the system or those who will be applying in the future.

According to the US General Accounting Office (GAO), at the end of 2003, there were 6.2 million applications still pending in the system at the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS). Congressional auditors at the GAO also found that people applying for permanent residency now wait an average of 33 months for their application to be processed, up from thirteen months in 2001. The GAO attributed the backlog to the increase in required security checks immigrants must undergo and to a severe lack of funding for the CIS.

NNIRR also has some concerns about the proposed temporary workers program. Speaking about the temporary workers program, NNIRR director Cathi Tactaquin, in the group’s press statement said, "While we are very cautious about temporary worker programs, this future worker proposal promises remedies to the problems of abuse and exploitation that have historically plagued temporary worker programs. However, it is not a substitute for much-needed reform and expansion of our current legal immigration program."

There is also a question of whether or not the new legislation would address the plight of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who, at great financial cost and grave risk to their lives, cross the US/Mexico border each year, though its intent is to increase the possible legal channels for entering the United States, especially for families.

Predictably, anti-immigration groups and Republicans in Congress oppose the SOLVE Act.

According to the LA Times, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that seeks to further close the nation’s borders, referred to the SOLVE Act as the "no illegal alien left behind" bill. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, "I worry that this new bill does little beyond encouraging further illegal immigration."

A spokesperson for Republican Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert stated more politicized opposition. "We're not going to take on anything controversial in an election year," he said.

Even proponents of the SOLVE Act ceded that it was unlikely to be passed this year because of election-year pressures. But they are hopeful that comprehensive reforms will be enacted next year. The National Immigration Forum called on Congress and the president to make a "down payment" on comprehensive immigration reform by passing two bills that are currently being debated in Congress: the DREAM Act, which would make it easier for immigrant students to get higher education, and the AgJobs bill, which would give legal status to some farm workers.

"AgJOBS and DREAM would serve as a good down payment on comprehensive immigration reform," Sharry said. "It would show the country that Congress and the president are serious about reform and willing to roll up their sleeves and work out their differences to get good policies passed."

"The shape of the immigration reform debate has been defined," Sharry said. "We’ve moved beyond tired notions of building a big wall around the country or deporting 10 million workers and their families. Immigration is an overwhelmingly positive feature of America’s history and will remain so in the future. This bill recognizes that managing immigration fairly and effectively makes more sense than our current policy of trying to overly suppress immigration and drive it underground."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Jessica Azulay is a staff journalist.

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