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Immigration Reform Faces Many Hurdles

Renee Feltz Feb 22

Since President Obama was re-elected with great help from Latino voters, he has taken care to repeatedly call for comprehensive immigration reform. In his inaugural address, during a talk on the topic in Nevada, and in his State of the Union speech, Obama repeatedly said he wanted to pass legislation to bring an estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented people in the United States out of the shadows. “We must act,” Obama declared. “We cannot afford to delay.”

Indeed, the cost of inaction so far has been great. More than 1.5 million people have been deported under Obama’s watch. At this rate, it is estimated the United States will have removed more people in the past six years than all of those deported before 1997.

For many immigrant families this translates into a daily reality in which they live in constant fear. In one of countless examples, Guatemalan-born Edi Arma, a Phoenix, Ariz. resident, recently shared his story on Democracy Now! of being confronted in his driveway by several agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as he prepared to take his U.S.-born children to school. His 11-year-old son Jose witnessed the incident and recalled that “when I was trying to say goodbye, they pushed me, and I fell on the ground.” Arma was eventually released with help from a local congressman, and given one year to continue working in this country before he faces deportation once again.

Closer to home, 19-year-old Brooklyn resident Janna Hakim recently described watching her mother be taken away by ICE after living in the United States for more than 20 years. “Every word my mother told me about this country I believed,” said the Palestinian Muslim American college student, “until she was ripped away from me and my siblings.” Hakim’s mother was deported after being held for three months in a detention center in New Jersey, and is now limited to caring for her three children by telephone from Ramallah.

So it was a welcome surprise for many when a bipartisan group of U.S. senators recently declared 2013 the year of immigration reform. They released a set of guiding principles that provide a path to legal residency for many of the country’s 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants that includes many of the criteria outlined in the chart below.

The president followed the next day with his own announcement that largely mirrored the proposal, and even improved on it by dropping the border security “trigger” that would require a panel of politicians to declare the border secure before enabling movement on the path to citizenship. But a close look at these proposals reveals this path is incredibly narrow, and could leave millions in the situation faced by the Arma and Hakim families.

“We call on President Obama and Congress to propose concrete legislation that leads to the immediate removal of unnecessary barriers to citizenship,” says Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org.

He says these barriers include English language proficiency requirements that until now have only been required for naturalization, unfair employment verification that could be used to exploit workers instead of to ensure their rights, and hefty fees and fines in order to “earn” legalization.

Beyond these concerns, the framework proposed by Congress and Obama so far is ultimately still one that continues to criminalize immigrants — calling on more border security even though such enforcement already has an $18 billion budget — larger than the combined budgets of the FBI, the Marshals Service, the Secret Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Meanwhile, far from the U.S.-Mexico border, thousands of immigrants continue to be drawn into a dragnet meant to target criminals that instead has resulted in the detention and removal of people who come into contact with police after looking for help, or being stopped for minor traffic infractions.

“Immigrants are not the enemy, yet programs such as Secure Communities have unnecessarily vilified domestic violence victims, entrepreneurs and family members,” says New York City Councilmember Jumaane Williams, himself a child of Caribbean immigrants. Williams has also called for better conditions in detention centers, both public and private.

All of this comes as key Republicans have begun to push back on any path to citizenship. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said after Obama’s State of the Union address that the president’s “plan meets the desire of businesses for low-wage foreign workers while doing nothing to protect struggling American workers.” Sessions sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will shape any immigration legislation. Critics say the measures he and other conservatives support would amount to a guest worker program in which migrants could be forced into poor working conditions for limited amounts of time before they were required to return to their home countries.

For now, the focus of immigrant advocates is to gain momentum to achieve the best possible outcome for as many — not as few — as possible. A massive rally is planned for April 10 in Washington, D.C., falling on the seventh anniversary of the last great upsurge in immigrant rights protests in 2006.

“We’ve been working toward this moment for a long time, building the immigrant electorate, highlighting the injustices of our immigration system, not giving up against great odds,” says Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “That persistence has paid off; there’s movement in Washington after years of partisan gridlock on the issue.”

But the fight is clearly not over yet.

Renée Feltz is a producer at Democracy Now!.