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Fair immigration policies still elude a nation of immigrants

I have been an immigration lawyer for more than 30 years. My work has always been mainly to help people inside the US to secure permanent legal status. Most of my clients have been or are currently part of an undocumented class. Some have been in deportation proceedings—the government actively trying to detain or remove them from the country. My job is to find a way to stop that and keep the person here with his or her family.

Winning legal cases and becoming documented has never been easy. There are complex rules and processes and court cases that can take four or five years. Some people choose a path to get status that requires leaving the US for a visa interview, risking a chance they won’t be able to return for 10 years. That’s a big risk, but it’s the only way for many.

Many more have no options at all, despite family members and other permanent ties to this country. We are a country of more than 11 million undocumented people. It’s not right and there is every reason to fix it.

Outdated laws affect professionals, laborers and those in-between

One in seven US residents—45 million people, or 14% of the population—is an immigrant. One in eight is a native-born US citizen with at least one immigrant parent. Immigration involves not just what happens at the southern border but also what happens when someone comes through immigration at the airport.

It necessitates parceling out per-country quotas of visas for family members, doctors and other essential workers, affecting the gamut from Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winners and high-level athletes to agricultural workers and caregivers. The system doesn’t work for most immigrants, their families, or the people who depend on them.

Some workers are here legally as workers in the tech sector. But because of laws written decades ago, their priority date to seek permanent status is never reached, leaving them chained to one employer, unable to easily travel, or make family plans, etc. Because capacity cannot keep up with demand, outdated rules cause the government to “lose” thousands of visas every year for the year in which they are awarded.

Senate Reconciliation bill fails needlessly to help immigrants

The system needs a significant overhaul, or at least an update. It’s not really a partisan issue, but it tends to be the Democrats who care about this issue more, and who drafted provisions in the Build Back Better Bill passed by the House of Representatives.

A few weeks ago, advocates were excited about the $100 billion in the Senate Reconciliation Bill tagged to support immigration policy and process improvements. This would have been the most significant change to immigration policies since Ronald Reagan’s amnesty program.

Putting these provisions inside the budget bills (where Congress decides what must be spent to keep the country running) was a good idea because an immigration bill by itself was likely to fail under Republican objections. Opponents in the Senate could filibuster to make sure the bill would not even come up for a vote. The budgeting process is more democratic—a simple majority could move whatever it wanted.

The package contained in the budget bills could have made real progress on many critical things. Immigration courts would get the tools needed to complete cases faster than the current three to four-year path. It also provided for full legalization of Dreamers, TPS recipients and very essential farm workers, all of whom would’ve been able to move forward on a permanent path in this country.

As we now know, however, Democrats did not get everything they had sought. The proposed $3–trillion-dollar package, after other big pandemic spending, was deemed too big. On top of this, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that a provision with such major impact could not be part of a budget reconciliation, even if the proposal was budget neutral. Immigrants themselves would have paid for each application; so it would not have cost any extra money

Why the powerful opposition to change?

Demographer Thomas Edsall, in his NY Times essay The ‘Third Rail of American Politics’ Is Still Electrifying. says that hardliners always claim to want to “strengthen the border” before anything else. They feel they can’t risk seeming weak on this issue.  They object to any immigration reform, even popular measures such as legalizing “Dreamers,” young people who’ve grown up and even graduated in the US but must maintain the status of their undocumented parents.

These same people often use the issue of immigration to ignite a deep sense of fear and threat among Americans, activating an “us vs. them” narrative to their political advantage.

It’s far easier for many people to react to immigrant issues with emotion than reason. But are objections to immigration reform based on a concern about who is coming and not how? Immigrants are outsiders, mostly of a different race (most immigrants are now from China, India, Mexico and the Philippines) and a common line of thinking is “why can’t they come legally, like my grandpa did?”

The answer is not that earlier generations of immigrants were more law abiding. It’s more that the legal system of the 1920s and 1950s doesn’t reflect today’s reality about who needs to come to the US.  Laws need to change after 60 years. But passing legislation is very difficult, as we have seen in the past few weeks.

Yet even in the pared down provisions of the current bill, we seem to be closer to some positive changes than ever before in my memory, improving the lives of some immigrants. But for many, it’s just the perpetuation of temporary, uncertain status leaving them to ask themselves why are they not as deserving as anyone else to have permanent lives in the US? Will immigrants get the changes they need someday soon? I hope so.

Lisa Seifert is an immigration lawyer in Olympia. Learn more at Siefert Law.

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