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Amnesty: Are We There Yet?

February 2010 - ByShahzad Ahmed with NeJame Law

Where is a magic mirror when you need one? Much of the immigrant community and the immigration lawyers have been waiting for amnesty or some type of immigration reform. They all wonder when it will arrive. But before we have reform, we must understand why reform is needed; and also what kind of reform is needed.

Why Should there be Immigration Reform?

First of all, why should there even be immigration reform? Critics argue: Why should we reward illegal immigrants for cutting in line? After all, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are waiting in line for their visa and have not broken any rules to gain admission to the United States. Why should such people be penalized? And, why legalize undocumented workers when Americans are losing jobs in the current economy? Opponents also cite security concerns. Accordingly, after 9/11, the Bush administration replaced its immigration reform agenda with one of border security.

By contrast, proponents argue the following: Immigrants form an important and productive component of our society. There are estimated to be about 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Many of them contribute in every way. Why not let them work legally and pay taxes instead of forcing them to remain in the shadows? Also, allowing undocumented workers to work legally will actually prevent employers from exploiting them and driving down wages. Moreover, security concerns can be addressed by strengthening our borders and enforcement, and should not prevent us from legalizing selective aliens who demonstrate good moral character.

This is the same type of back and forth which takes place in Congress and stalls any change in the status quo. On the balance however, the arguments in favor of reform are strong and have been gaining momentum.

What Immigration Reform Should There Be?

But if there is to be some Immigration Reform, what type of reform should it be? As far as any new legislation is concerned, remember that the devil is in the details. It is important to know not only what reform is needed, but what reform should be rejected. What may be presented as "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" may actually undermine your important values, such as family unity. For example, in 2007, the Bush Administration proposed a "reform," that although provided a guest worker program to benefit the big corporations, it sought to eliminate certain family-based categories, i.e. parents and siblings of U.S. citizens. As a result, certain minority groups, and immigrant advocacy groups, strongly opposed this "reform." The lesson: the Caribbean- and South Asian-American community must work with local churches and immigrant advocacy groups to know what "reform" is being proposed, and then mobilize to either support the legislation, or work constructively to have it amended.

Then earlier this year, Congress introduced the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM ACT) legislation. This bill provided amnesty to minor children who came to the U.S. prior to the age of 16, provided that they had been residing in the U.S. for at least 5 years and had graduated from high school. They would be granted conditional residency for six years, during which they would have to attend two years of college or complete two years of military service. This bill quickly gained the bipartisan support of both houses of Congress. However, Congress switched its attention to worsening economy and healthcare reform, and once again, immigration legislation lost priority.

When Will The Immigration Reform Be?

So far, the Obama administration and Congress continue to focus on healthcare reform, which has sidetracked any immigration legislation. However, President Obama recently indicated that he expected comprehensive reform to pass in 2010. Additionally, on November 13, 2009, Department of Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that she senses a shift toward comprehensive reform. She further hinted that legislation would include "a commitment to serious and effective enforcement, improved legal flows for families and workers, and a firm but fair way to deal with those already here."

To sum up, while no one has a magic mirror to predict when comprehensive immigration legislation will be enacted, we know three things: We need it, we know what we do not need, and most importantly . . . there is hope!

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