Undocumented reform: What D.C.'s new immigration mojo means for Washington State

Pramila Jayapal looks at local impacts of the recent immigration reform proposals from President Obama and the Senate's new "Gang of Eight."
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Section of the 652-mile wall along the U.S.- Mexico border

Pramila Jayapal looks at local impacts of the recent immigration reform proposals from President Obama and the Senate's new "Gang of Eight."

It’s game on for immigration reform in 2013. Prospects for a real immigration bill this year took a big step forward last week as a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” Senators released its framework for an immigration bill, and President Obama staked out his own position with a speech and a written set of principles. 

Washington State stands to benefit greatly from an inclusive, humane and comprehensive immigration reform bill. This two-part series will analyze the core elements of last week's two immigration proposals. (Neither is a bill yet, just the principles and a framework for one.) Part One of the series focuses on border security and treatment of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already in America and, in some cases, have been for decades.

Part 2 (coming this Wednesday) will look at the components of the proposals that deal with reform of the legal immigration system. These include family reunification, high-tech and research sector immigration, employment verification and the future flow of workers.

Washington State has an undocumented population of about 240,000 people. Many work in the state’s $18 billion agricultural industry, which depends on immigrant labor. Others are employed in restaurants, hotels and in various trades. Still more undocumented immigrants work at home, taking care of their kids or our kids as part of a temporary and informal labor market. Almost one-fifth of Washington’s undocumented immigrants are young people who were brought here as children. Often, they are unaware of their illegal status until they are much older. For many of these young people, known as DREAMers, American is the only home they know.   

The framework laid out by the Senate’s Gang of Eight outlines two paths to citizenship: a faster path for DREAMers and agricultural industry workers, and a slower, more cumbersome path for everyone else — a path which involves securing our borders. President Obama's plan proposed the same process for legalization and path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants, and it does not make this path contingent on border security — although it does propose improvements to border security.

Given that Washington State has substantial populations of both DREAMers and undocumented agricultural workers, the Senate’s two-track approach would not be bad for our state. But everyone would benefit if there were one clear and direct path to citizenship. 

Under the Senate framework, undocumented immigrants who are not DREAMers or agricultural workers, and who have not committed a “serious crime,” would be eligible for temporary legal status once they have paid a fine and any back taxes. However, the next step — permanent legal residence — would be “contingent” on border security and a functioning exit-entry system. 

So how do we define and measure border security?

A recent report by The Migration Policy Institute found that the U.S. spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement in 2012. That’s more than the combined amount spent on five other federal agencies: FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement, U.S. Marshal Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The U.S. Border Patrol has doubled in size over the past decade to over 21,000 agents, and there are now 652 miles of steel barriers separating the U.S. and Mexico. (Consider that the Berlin Wall — when it stood — was about 100 miles long). As a result of increased federal spending — and the economic recession — the number of illegal crossings and apprehensions at the border have both dropped significantly. And yet, in the estimation of the federal government, the border remains vulnerable.

The Government Accountability Office addressed the elusive nature of border security in a December 2012 report. The GAO concluded that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must establish actual performance goals and measures for assessing “border security.” DHS also said it intends to shift from a “resource-based approach” to security to a “risk-management approach that leverages existing resources.” In other words, DHS has the necessary resources and technology. What it lacks is a more nuanced and strategic approach to border security that better suits the evolving threats.

In truth, it is unlikely that the border will ever be completely secure. Making permanent legal residence contingent on that elusive goal sentences undocumented people to a permanent limbo, and renders any legalization provision effectively meaningless. Further, adding more money or more agents will only worsen the human rights abuses (at northern and southern borders) that have been highlighted in numerous reports.

Both the president’s and Senate’s proposals also contain language that would exclude immigrants who are deemed “serious criminals” or “threats to national security.” Ann Benson, Directing Attorney for the Washington Defender Association and one of the top national experts on the intersection of the criminal justice and immigration systems, says advocates will need to clarify the definition of “serious criminals” to make sure that immigrants who may have low-level and non-violent convictions can still qualify.

“Right now, driving without a license is one of the most prosecuted crimes in many states,” said Benson. “Those kinds of offenses, while considered 'crimes' for the purposes of the law as it stands, should not exclude people from eligibility.”

Similarly, advocates will need to ensure that the national security threat language does not cast a net so broad that it automatically excludes immigrants from certain Muslim or Arab countries, which has been the effect of numerous pieces of legislation since 9/11. 

Washington State has a strong history of responding to discriminatory policies against Arabs and Muslims post-9/11. The organization I founded, OneAmerica (then called Hate Free Zone), filed a successful nationwide class-action lawsuit against the federal government for attempting to deport about 5,000 Somalis on the sketchy grounds that they somehow posed a terrorist threat.  Despite these  and other efforts, the federal government continues to define national security threat so broadly that it often excludes people simply based on their national origin.

Any legislation will also need to address the plight of undocumented immigrants who were caught up in the harsh enforcement dragnet of the past decade. Many of these deportees risked everything to return to the U.S. so they could be with family members who remained here. If they are caught again, these immigrants can be barred from the U.S. for up to 10 years. Any workable immigration reform bill will need to ensure that these kinds of prior deportations are not a barrier to obtaining lawful status. 

Finally, past bills have tied legalization to employment. This employment provision leaves out thousands of undocumented immigrants, particularly women who stay home with their children instead of working, or who are part of the informal and temporary labor market. Neither the President’s proposal nor the Senate’s contains specifics about employment status.

It’s time for America to finally resolve the issue of 11 million undocumented immigrants who live in the shadows. To bring closure and stability for these undocumented immigrants, and for the country as a whole, the process of legalization and the path to citizenship should be as inclusive and direct as possible.


Click here for more on immigration from Pramila Jayapal.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Pramila Jayapal

Pramila Jayapal

Pramila Jayapal is a Democratic member of Congress, representing Washington state's 7th District.