Twenty years ago, Xochitl Rojas moved to Seattle from Mexico with her parents and two brothers. As she and her brothers grew up, her parents continued to remind them of the consequences in their immigration status. She didn’t mind – she felt like a normal American, except with a secret. Now married and a mother, her son has been asking her a pressing question: “When can I meet my grandparents?”
Because of the citizenship eligibility restrictions and lengthy waiting time with current immigration law, Rojas and her family are unable to reunite with the rest of her family in Mexico. The thought of sending her three-year-old son alone to Mexico is unbearable, so her son is left with an unanswered question.
For families like Rojas’ and others who are deeply impacted by United States immigration laws, the long-awaited reform bill, a draft of which was released by the Senate “Gang of 8” Wednesday night, is their beacon of hope. Still, without some amendments, the bill will put women, families and same-sex couples at a disadvantage.
Rojas was just one of many local immigration advocates urging reform of the bill at a Wednesday press conference organized by immigrant rights group OneAmerica.
Last year alone, 400,000 people were deported from the U.S. That’s 1,100 per day, according to OneAmerica Executive Director Rich Stolz. Facing the on-going numbers of deportation and immigration cases in the United States, advocates have been waiting for a public response from the Legislature regarding immigration reforms. The arrival of the reform bill was welcome news.
Key provisions of the 844-page bill include a doubled cap for H-1B visas and a new visa program. The “W-visa” would facilitate the hiring of 20,000 foreigners in low-skilled jobs a year, starting in 2015. It also includes changes to the family visa program: An unlimited number of visas per year for foreign spouses, children and parents of U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents. There are some cutbacks though. One new aspect facing criticism is the elimination of visas for foreign siblings of U.S. citizens and children over 30 years of age.
Most significantly, the proposed bill would allow unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before Dec. 21, 2011, to apply for temporary legal status. After ten years, immigrants would be eligible to apply for a green card and, three years later, citizenship – a path that would take a total of 13 years. During that time, applicants would be required to pay a $1,000 fine, any back taxes, learn English, remain employed and pass a criminal background check. For Dream Act youth, the wait is five years for green cards and citizenship immediately thereafter.
In a delight to immigrant rights advocates, the bill includes a provision for those deported before 2011, with the conditions that they are either 1) family members of a U.S Citizen or Permanent Resident 2) those eligible for DREAM Act.
However, Wednesday's critics worry the new immigration bill does not address a continued path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the U.S. after the 2011 cut-off or those who might enter in the future. Several years from now, Stolz says, the U.S. will once again be faced with the same problem we have now.
Women's citizenship rights are another sticking point. Currently, seventy percent of female immigrants enter the country with the help of relatives already living in the U.S. Once here, the majority work as domestic workers, homemakers and caregivers — positions disadvantaged by visa and citizenship criteria that focus greatly on work and education history. Likewise, the rights of same-sex couples are ignored by the new bill.
OneAmerica Policy Director Ada Williams believes the path to citizenship should be contingent on proof of residence rather than proof of employment. Yasmin Christopher, a Seattle University law student and human trafficking survivor from Bangladesh, recommended allocating more U and T visas — currently designated for victims of assualt, crime and human trafficking — to women.
The bill also fails to deal with the existing backlog of visas. With current waiting lists, Asian American and Pacific Islanders immigrating through family visas wait an average of 20 years until they are reunited with their family – including Christopher, whose family waited decades until reunification because of backlogs.
The bill’s current focus on skilled workers and cutbacks to family visas will create even more backlogs, Asian Counseling and Referral Services Employment and Citizenship Director Jeff Wendland said. According to Wendland, the bump in applications for skilled worker visas will take precedence over existing family visa applications, pushing the wait for family members back even further. Wendland expects this to hurt the strength of immigrant communities and the growth of small businesses, which are often started as family enterprises.
“Scientists cannot replace sisters,” said Wendland.
Border enforcement is another key provision in the bill, which will allocate $3 billion of funds to the Department of Homeland Security to improve border security through surveillance drones and 3,500 additional customs agents. Under these new provisions, the Department of Homeland Security would be expected to achieve 100 percent surveillance and apprehend 90 percent of people trying to cross illegally in high-risk sectors.
“The well-being of families in our community should not be conditioned by arbitrary border measures or any political or bureaucratic process that holds their loved ones hostage in process to which they have no control,” said Northwest Immigrant Rights Project Executive Director Jorge Barón during the press conference. “Arbitrary enforcement tears family apart, leads to racial profiling and wastes millions of dollars.”
Barón also highlights the need for urgency. Even as the bill is debated, immigration and deportation cases continue. There are currently thousands of people at immigration detainment centers around the county, Baron says, including around 1500 right now at the Tacoma detention center. Because of this, Baron is advocating for a total moratorium on deportation until the bill is signed and finalized.
Until then, local organizations will continue to press for improvements as the bill moves through hearings and the judiciary committee, with a focus on LGBT families, women and children and worker protection.
As community leaders, local organizations and families anticipate the passage of the bill, Pedro Ramirez – an undocumented local worker from Mexico, who has been living in the U.S. for about nine years – has only one thing to say: “I came to this country from Mexico to work for a better future for my family and other families like mine. You all have the power to achieve a better immigration system for us all.”