What’s Next in the Immigration Debate? Ten Principles for Change


Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund Families for Freedom Immigrant Communities in Action Make the Road by Walking

After almost two months of taking to the streets, it is clear that we, as immigrant communities, can be a relevant force in influencing the immigration debate. Unfortunately, the proposals currently being considered in Congress and the policy positions discussed by the President contain almost none of the reforms that we have called for. We need to change the course of the debate, but how do we do that?

First, we must respond to the current proposals in Congress. We must say No Deal! to Hagel-Martinez, the leading legislation currently being considered in the Senate, and any other bill like it, because it does not meet our demands for fair and just comprehensive immigration reform. Under Hagel-Martinez, more than half of the undocumented immigrant population, and possibly many more, would not even be eligible for adjustment to legal status.

Second, we must formulate our own serious platform for comprehensive immigration reform. Broadly, this must include the following ten principles:

  1. Adjustment to legal status for undocumented immigrants.
  2. Clearing of the immigration backlog.
  3. Expansion of legal immigration opportunities to account for both family-based immigration and the needs of our economy.
  4. Provisions that keep families together.
  5. Stronger protections for workersincluding repeal of employer sanctions, no new guestworker programs, and path to citizenship for future workers.
  6. Ending of all detention for mere civil immigration violations and repeal of mandatory deportation.
  7. Stronger civil rights standards for enforcement efforts, including ending of racial and ethnic profiling and selective targeting of communities.
  8. Full due process rights and judicial review for individuals in removal proceedings.
  9. No state and local enforcement of immigration laws.
  10. Reasonable, just, and humane enforcement and border policies.

These principles are the starting point for a detailed pro-immigrant plan for comprehensive reform that we must develop. Such a detailed plan should be the standard against which any bill put forth by Congress should be evaluated. Thus far, however, the proposals that have been considered in Congress have failed to embrace our ten principles for change.

The House of Representatives took up the issue of immigration reform first and passed H.R. 4437 in December. H.R. 4437, authored by Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), is an enforcement only law that creates no opportunity for adjustment to legal status for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States and contains no provisions relating to legalized employment of undocumented workers. Instead, the bill does exactly the opposite by making mere status as an undocumented immigrant a crime (as opposed to the civil violation that it is now).

The Senate is still in the midst of its debate on immigration reform and is expected to continue its deliberations through the end of May. Only when the Senate passes its own version of an immigration bill can the process be set in motion that would eventually lead to the joint House and Senate vote required to pass a new immigration law. Any final law would require a compromise between the House and Senate proposals.

As discussed above, the current Senate proposal being considered is S. 2611, a bill written by Senators Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Mel Martinez (R-FL). Although the Hagel-Martinez bill does not go the route of criminalizing all undocumented immigrants as under the Sensenbrenner House bill, it does incorporate H.R. 4437’s focus on enforcement and deportation instead of full adjustment of status for undocumented individuals.

For individuals currently in the United States, Hagel-Martinez creates a hierarchical three-tier system of status depending on the length of time an individual has been in the country, with only individuals who have been in the U.S. for five years or longer offered an opportunity to adjust to legal status. From the outset, this excludes a large portion of the undocumented population. And even those who have been in the U.S. for longer than five years face onerous documentation requirements and monetary penalties.

Like the Sensenbrenner House bill, the enforcement heavy Hagel-Martinez proposal calls for placing more individuals in detention for mere civil immigration violations, continues the policy of mandatory detention, massively increases the number of immigration agents, and allows state and local police departments to enforce immigration laws. Additionally, the Senate bill contains no increased protections for workers, maintains the horrendous policy of employer sanctions, and does not provide adequate due process rights or judicial review for individuals in removal proceedings.

Over the coming weeks, other versions of an immigration bill will come before the Senate for debate and possibly a vote. It is up to us to watch these developments closely, and evaluate any proposals against our demands. If these proposals do not meet the standards that we have set, then we must be vocal in our opposition.

Third and lastly, to change the course of the immigration debate, we must take our movement and proposals not only to the streets, but also to our elected leaders and to all of America, immigrants and non-immigrants alike. The development of our own detailed plan for reform will, of course, begin with conversations from within our communities. But then, we must bring these ideas to the country and explain to them why we are right. Its a difficult task, but its also the only way that we will see a new immigration law that is fair and just.

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