If you have a couple of hours, days or even more free time and feel like cozying up to 844 pages — give or take a few — of sterile but important legalese, the U.S. Senate has just the thing. It is called the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, a new piece of legislation aimed at, perhaps, not solving the nation’s broken immigration system but, ideally, improving it.
The new immigration act is mixed bag legislation, complicated, not entirely satisfying but the medicine necessary in the process of getting better. It is a document built upon the foundation of border security but also one that provides a path to citizenship for immigrants — easier for some than others. It also allows a freedom of movement that does now exist for many who simply want to visit family still living in Mexico, where most of the country’s 11 million immigrants are from.
“What I like best is that it is the first comprehensive approach to fixing a broken immigration system,” said Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, one of the key architects of the new legislation. It is also the boldest move on immigration since President Reagan’s in 1986.
Bennet and seven Senate colleagues, a bipartisan group known as the “Gang of Eight,” have been working long hours cobbling together a bill that nobody is saying will solve the problem, but agree will dramatically improve a system that many believe to be outdated, ambiguous and unworkable.
They have emphasized many times that one thing the new bill is not, despite arguments from detractors, is amnesty. Caught in the middle and trying to please his conservative brethren on one side while appealing to and acknowledging the growing influence of Latino voters on the other is ‘gang of eight’ member Sen. Marco Rubio from Florida. He says condensing his defense of the bill to a single sentence, “is doing nothing.”
Bennet told La Voz Bilingüe the bill “is not exactly what I might have written,” but calls it, nonetheless, fundamentally sound. Bennet thinks it will improve the lives and opportunities for ‘dreamers’ and even reduce the number of deportations that have stained the Obama administration’s image, particularly among Latinos.
The plan calls for spending more than $3 billion dollars securing the southern border. Much of the money will go for better fencing, high technology cameras, sensors and the latest in drone surveillance. An additional 3,500 border officers will also be included in the new law.
The bill also addresses young people brought to this country by their parents — DREAMERS — and agriculture workers. Both may qualify for green cards in as little as five years. After five years, they would have the opportunity to receive a green card allowing them to live, work and move freely in the U.S. When that period expires, they could apply for permanent legal status while simultaneously applying for citizenship.
“It is not a perfect bill and could be better,” says Daniel Garza, Executive Director of the Libre Initiative, a Texas-based organization that promotes economic freedom and has staked out strong positions on immigration reform. Garza likes that the bill creates a more balanced relationship between employers and workers and that it “allows children to be educated in the light of liberty,” but is bothered by other parts of the legislation.
“The application fees are too high,” he says, “especially for those who are barely getting by.” The $500 dollar fee to take the first step toward legalization may simply be out of reach for minimum wage workers, Garza says.
And while he believes strongly that English is important for any citizen — language requirements are written into the bill for applicants — “it may be too restrictive,” Garza says, and could shut some people out. Nonetheless, he says, “we’re supportive of the measure in general terms.”
At a recent Denver immigration forum, featuring representatives from Sen. Bennet’s office along with labor and immigration advocates, panelists found plenty to like in the bill and more than enough to want changed.
Panelist and Bennet aide, Rosemary Rodriguez, said the new law is a strong step toward not only addressing immigration but acknowledging the reality of 11 million people, most of whom are here to stay.
Immigration attorney Arturo Jimenez was critical of parts of the measure that emphasize massive border security expenditures. Another panelist, immigration attorney Amber Tafoya, said the bill continues policies that focus on detention of immigrants, calling it “prevention through detention,” and a boon to the private prison industry.
The information contained in the 844-page document is mind-numbing but important. “Education is key,” says Denver family immigration attorney Jessica Kunevicius. “Even right now, we don’t know (everything), even if we read all 844 pages. “We don’t know when it’s going to be enacted, don’t know who’s going to fall through the cracks.”
Kunevicius also warns against getting bad information. Near her desk hangs a strip of yellow and black stickers that reads, ‘Stop Notario Fraud!’ She says clients come in regularly retelling stories about having given money to notaries they believe can help them only to learn too late that they were scammed.
The bill, as written, must still go to the House where a conservative wing of legislators poses a challenge. Not known for their sympathy on this issue, senators like Bennet are uncertain what they will get back.
“The thing we can do is to have as big a vote in the Senate as possible,” he says. He believes there is a good chance that that will happen. But he made his comment as two Chechen immigrants were terrorizing Boston. Other Senate colleagues seized upon the domestic assault and used immigration reform as a target.
“Given the events of this week, it’s important for us to understand the gaps and loopholes in our immigration system,” Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley testified recently in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Immigration Reform. Grassley made his comments prior to learning the nationality of the two young men involved in the marathon bombings.
There may be no better time for this legislation than now. The initial Senate version has won the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an organization known for its conservative leanings. The AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumpka also endorsed the bill.
Another thing Bennet says will come out of the new immigration legislation is something that has troubled immigration reform advocates and caused many who voted for President Obama in the recent election to do so while looking the other way on the record number of deportations that have occurred in his presidency.
At the end of 2012, the administration had deported an estimated 1.2 million undocumented persons over the last three years. Homeland Security defends it actions by saying that it arrested and deported only “the worst of the worst,” including gang members and serious felons and not law-abiding undocumented immigrants. But others say that authorities have been overzealous in actions, which have resulted in families being unnecessarily and indefinitely broken apart.
Bennet believes that the new enthusiasm for comprehensive immigration reform — enthusiasm that did not exist prior to the last election when ‘self deportation’ was the Republican answer to the immigration issue — will address these mass deportations. “I think absolutely, no question about it.” Anyone, he says, who is subject to deportation now, will be able to relax and not spend the time they spend now looking over their shoulder.
“When people give it a look,” Bennet says of the proposed changes in immigration law, “there is a lot to like.”