After months of deliberation, the so-called “Gang of Eight” in the US Senate has finally filed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that not only calls for securing the country’s border but, more importantly, opening a path for citizenship for some of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
The bill, officially known as the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013,” includes provisions that call for strengthening the borders, reducing decades-long family-based visa backlogs within eight years, increasing the pool of green cards available to skilled and non-skilled workers, and forging a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants. It also allows children of undocumented immigrants (Dreamers) to achieve citizenship within five years.
This is the latest attempt by politicians in Washington to reform the broken immigration system and to forge a compromise that would be acceptable to both sides of the immigration debate.
It has been 27 years since the last major overhaul of the country’s immigration system when three million undocumented immigrants received amnesty during the Reagan administration in 1986. In 2007, there was another attempt to overhaul the system but both sides couldn’t agree on provisions related to the recruitment of skilled and non-skilled workers.
For decades, Americans have argued over immigration. The conservatives, who have shown an innate fear for anything new, including newcomers, want those who are here illegally to be kicked out and for the doors to legal immigration to be tightened. The pro-immigrant activists want all those who have been working and living in the United States—some 11 million of them—to be legalized and given a path to citizenship, and to allow them to be reunited with the family members they left behind.
Hopefully, both sides of the political divide may have finally come to the realization that their extremist views for and against immigration reform can no longer hold, and that they must find a middle ground to put a balance to the need to stop illegal immigration on one side, and the need to make these undocumented immigrants a chance to become more productive residents of this great country and to satisfy the need of many businesses, particularly the agricultural sector, for workers willing and able to do the job.
Eight senators—four from the Democrats and four from the Republicans —have been trying to come up with an acceptable reform program and after months of deliberation, have filed the bill. Despite its middle-ground stance, it is still expected to encounter stiff opposition from both sides of the immigration debate.
Two particular provisions have raised concern among Filipinos—the elimination of sibling-based visas, and capping of the age of eligibility for married sons and daughters of US citizens. Both provisions would make it difficult for family reunification.
The Senate bill would eliminate 4th preference category where a US citizen files a petition for his brothers and sisters that allows a spouse and children under 21 to ride along on the petition. The National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) said there are 423,449 Filipinos waiting for their visas under this category—the highest among Asian Americans. Filipinos have also the longest waiting period—up to 22 years.
The other provision that would be a blow to family reunification is the one that places an age cap of 30 years for US citizens to petition their adult married children.
These provisions and the ones that seek to allot more visas for highly skilled workers and temporary visas for agricultural workers and low-skill laborers clearly define a shift of the national immigration policy from one that emphasizes family reunification to one that favors business.
But while it gives temporary legal status to many undocumented immigrants, the path that the reform package opens is too long and circuitous. Under the reform measure, no undocumented immigrant already in the US will be able to file for registered provisional status until a strategy to secure the border has been submitted by the Department of Homeland Security and approved by Congress.
After that, undocumented immigrants who have clean legal records can pay a $500 fee and the assessed taxes and register for the provisional status, which prevents summary deportation but does not permit access to any of the benefits of permanent residency.
Provisional status can be renewed after six years, with payment of another $500 fee. After 10 years, those with provisional status would be allowed to pay a $1,000 penalty and apply for permanent resident status. But such status will not be available until all existing family and employment green cards have cleared the system. Analysts say it could take close to 15 years for the possibility of permanent resident status.
Clearly, the proposed reform package was a concession to business rather than to immigration proponents. It is a compromise that not many people in either side of the immigration divide may be willing to accept. And yet it may be the only immediate solution to a problem that has divided America for years.
Filipinos can either accept and support it, or continue the wrangling over an issue that can only worsen through time.