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More struggle needed for a just immigration reform

Fight Back! commentary
By Masao Suzuki |
April 28, 2013
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On April 17, a bipartisan group of eight senators released their proposal for “Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” While there are parts of the proposal that would improve the lives of millions of undocumented, it falls far short of a real legalization plan and it includes many bad parts that cannot be supported. What needs to be done, first and foremost, is to rebuild a mass and militant movement for legalization and against more militarization of the border and against workplace repression. We need to go all out to mobilize for May 1 and keep the pressure on politicians to come up with a better immigration reform bill.

The proposal would establish a temporary “Registered Provisional Immigrant” (RPI) visa for the undocumented that would have to be renewed after six years. This RPI visa would help millions of undocumented to come out of the shadows and to work without fear of ICE raids. The RPI visa would let the former undocumented get drivers licenses and be able to drive without fear of having their cars impounded. Many of the undocumented who have not been able to visit their relatives outside the U.S. for many years would be able to travel with the RPI visa. Their families here in the U.S, which include many legal permanent residents and native-born and naturalized U.S. citizens, would not have to continue to live in fear of being broken up by deportations.

While the RPI visa would improve the lives of the undocumented, it falls far short of the “legalization for all” that the community needs. Unlike legal permanent residency, those with an RPI visa cannot sponsor their family members to come to the U.S., nor can they apply for citizenship. There is an arbitrary cut-off date of Dec. 31, 2011 to qualify for the RPI visa, excluding all those who came in 2012.

The proposal also sets up four major barriers to legalization. First of all, there is at least a ten year wait in order to become a legal permanent resident. Second, there is a requirement that the U.S.-Mexico border be declared “secure” and that 90% of the undocumented who try to cross are being turned away before any of those with RPI visas can legalize. Third, there is the requirement that anyone with an RPI visa show that they had no more than 60 days of unemployment at any one spell in order to legalize. Finally, those on an RPI visa must apply for a new visa under a new system that emphasizes education and English speaking ability, which could exclude many from Mexico and Central America.

A major exception to this long wait and many barriers is made for undocumented youth who have a college degree or who have served in the military, and for agricultural workers, who only have to wait five years to become legal permanent residents. In addition the “DREAM” youth can apply for citizenship immediately after becoming legal permanent residents. On the other hand, the requirements to qualify are stricter than from the DACA (Deferred Action for Child Arrivals), since the DACA only requires a high-school degree, while the DREAM part of this proposal requires a college degree or two years progress towards a bachelor’s degree or military service.

There are other positive parts of the proposal, such as the expansion of immigration by immediate family of legal residents (spouses and minor children), as well as a number of smaller fixes to problems in the current immigration law.

On the other hand, the proposal would eliminate visas for siblings of U.S. citizens and married children of citizens who are over 31 years old. There is no recognition of same sex partners in the proposal. And the proposal puts into law an effort to shift immigration away from family reunification to a point system that favors those who speak English and are highly educated. Instead of the ideal, written on the Statue of Liberty, of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free...” there is a philosophy of give us your leisured, your rich, your highly educated that serve the needs of U.S. corporations.

The proposal vastly increases temporary worker programs to the benefit of U.S. businesses. It increases the number of skilled temporary workers (H-1b) from 65,000 per year to as much as 180,000 per year. The bill also establishes a new temporary worker program for unskilled workers that ramps up to 75,000 per year. These visas are not guest workers as they could switch employers and could apply for permanent residency.

But worst of all, the proposal begins, and is very clearly focused on, increasing the militarization of the border, including the deployment of the National Guard. The current policy is killing hundreds of people trying to get into the U.S.; the current bill would increase this. In addition, the proposal wants to expand a federal program to arrest, charge, convict and jail undocumented migrants on criminal charges for crossing the border. This is another step towards criminalization of the undocumented.

The proposal also wants to step up enforcement in the U.S. It would ramp up the E-verify workplace system, making it mandatory over the next five years. This would facilitate the development of a national ID card system. The proposal also calls for a whole new system to track visitors to the U.S. to make sure that they leave the country. It also maintains the Secure Communities program, so that local police can be an arm of ICE.

There is also scarcely veiled racism in the bill. The Immigration Act of 1990 established a “Diversity Visa” to allow more immigrants from countries that don’t send many people to the U.S. It was widely seen as an effort to allow more Irish to immigrate and to allow for the legalization of undocumented Irish immigrants in the U.S. But over the years the Diversity Visa has become a major path for immigration from Africa. The proposal would eliminate the Diversity Visa, which would cut immigration from Africa in half and at the same time the proposal would add a new visa for immigrants from Ireland!

So what is to be done? Most importantly, we need to reflect on one of the best parts of the bill, the relatively faster legalization, with fewer barriers, of the undocumented youth. Why did they get a better deal? Because the undocumented youth carried out mass protests and militant actions, under the slogan, “Undocumented and unafraid.” What is needed more than ever is to rebuild a mass and militant movement for legalization that widens the legalization for youth by dropping the college and military service requirements, and opens up faster legalization for all the undocumented, not just youth and agricultural workers. This struggle for legalization for all needs to go hand in hand with the fight against more militarization of the border and the moves to expand E-verify.

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