Immigration Reform

What Does Immigration Reform Mean For You?

If you follow the news, you must have been hearing a lot about immigration reform lately.  You may be wondering, why has this issue suddenly gotten so important?  Or, if you are an immigrant yourself, you may be thinking, what does this mean to you?  If you are one of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, you may be wondering if you would be able to come out of the shadows.  If you are in the process of immigrating to the United States legally, you may be thinking, how this would impact you.  With no specific proposals yet on the table, it is important to understand the issues discussed in the immigration debate.  In this article, we explain the practicalities of the immigration debate.

How Will Immigration Reform Affect Your Life?

If you are a non-U.S. citizen living in the United States, immigration reform is likely to directly affect your life.  The way in which it would affect you depends on your immigration status.  If you are an undocumented immigrant, immigration reform may open a pathway for permanent residency and possibly U.S. citizenship.  If you are a documented immigrant, immigration reform may ease the process for you to become a U.S. permanent resident and citizen.

Even if you are a United States citizen, immigration reform may change the process by which you would be able to sponsor your foreign-born spouse or relatives, or adopt children from abroad.

What Can We Expect?

Any proposal aimed at improving the United States immigration system is likely to touch on several main issues, including:

  • Dealing with undocumented immigrants already living in the United States;
  • Securing U.S. borders;• Preventing immigration fraud;
  • Addressing the issue of substantial delays and backlogs in immigration procedures;
  • Closing loopholes that cause delays;
  • Allowing employers to sponsor more professional and skilled employees;
  • Improving ways to immigrate through investment or contributing to the U.S. national interests.

In order to streamline immigration system, lawmakers may come up with new visa categories such as guest worker visas or prospective immigrant visas.

2012 Presidential Election

Shortly after President Obama was reelected in November of 2012, he announced that he would push for immigration reform during his second term.  Obama, a Democrat, enjoyed overwhelming support of Latino voters in the 2012 elections.  It is estimated that 71% of Hispanics voters gave their support to Obama, while only 27% voted for Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Republicans’ failure with Hispanics has been attributed to the party’s tough stance on immigration.  For example, Arizona’s harsh immigration law, known as SB 1070, was signed by Arizona’s Republican Governor Jan Brewer in 2010, and included several controversial provisions, including those authorizing police to arrest lawfully present immigrants suspected of committing removable offenses; imposing penalties under state law for immigrants who fail to carry “registration” papers or attempt to work without federal authorization; and requiring police to determine the immigration status of people they stop or arrest if “reasonable suspicion” exists that they are in the country unlawfully.

Most Democrats opposed the law, and the Obama Administration filed a suit against Arizona, alleging that its immigration law provisions were inconsistent with federal law.  The law went to the Supreme Court of the United States, and in June of 2012 the justices struck down most provisions in question, but upheld the most controversial part of the law that said Arizona’s police can stop, question and briefly detain immigrants if they have reason to believe they are in the country illegally (known as the “Papers Please” provision).  In his election campaign, Republican challenger Mitt Romney did not openly support the Arizona law, although he called it a “model” for the nation, and said that the law highlighted Obama’s “failure” on immigration.

Some Republicans have characterized the 2012 elections as a “wake-up call” for the party on immigration.  Media have discussed Republicans’ “Latino problem”, and Republican strategist Ana Navarro said, “If we don’t do better with Hispanics, we’ll be out of the White House forever”.

Senators’ Plan

After Obama’s second inauguration in January of 2013, the moment seemed ripe for a discussion on immigration.  On January 28, 2013, a group of bipartisan senators formally unveiled their framework for comprehensive immigration reform, saying they are more optimistic than they have been in years for the chance of passing such legislation.

The Senators involved in the negotiations—Democrats Chuck Schumer (NY), Dick Durbin (IL), Bob Menendez (NJ), and Michael Bennet (CO); and Republicans John McCain (AZ), Marco Rubio (FL), Lindsey Graham (SC), and Jeff Flake (AZ)—outlined four “basic legislative pillars” for immigration reform:

  • Create a tough but fair path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States that is contingent upon securing our borders and tracking whether legal immigrants have left the country when required;
  •  Reform our legal immigration system to better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help build the American economy and strengthen American families;
  •  Create an effective employment verification system that will prevent identity theft and end the hiring of future unauthorized workers;
  •  Establish an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation’s workforce needs, while simultaneously protecting all workers.

Obama’s Plan

On January 29, 2013, the next day after the Senators unveiled their plan, President Barack Obama gave a speech on immigration. The president supported a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration laws and said “now is the time” for immigration reform.  In the weeks since that speech, Obama’s vision took shape and now includes four key points:

  • Continuing to strengthen border security;
  • Cracking down on employers hiring undocumented workers;
  • Earned citizenship;
  • Streamlining Legal Immigration.

Path to Citizenship: Senators’ Version

At first glance, the senators’ plan and President Obama’s plan look very similar.  However, they significantly differ on some main issues.  Perhaps the most important of them is path to citizenship.  Both the senators’ plan and Obama’s plan support it, but the senators’ plan makes path to citizenship contingent upon the U.S. success in securing the borders and addressing visa overstays.

The senators propose granting qualifying undocumented immigrants, who pass background check and pay a fine and any back taxes, probationary legal status, which will allow them to live and work legally in the United States.  The senators then envision putting into place a system that provides better security, including implementing an entry-exit system that would track whether individuals who enter the U.S. with temporary visas leave the country as required.  Only after the borders are deemed secure, and the undocumented population is accounted for, those with probationary legal status may apply for full lawful permanent residency (commonly known as “green-cards”).

The plan says: “Once the enforcement measures have been completed, individuals with probationary legal status will be required to go to the back of the line of prospective immigrants, pass an additional background check, pay taxes, learn English and civics, demonstrate a history of work in the United States, and current employment, among other requirements, in order to earn the opportunity to apply for lawful permanent residency. Those individuals who successfully complete these requirements can eventually earn a green card.”

Under the current system, obtaining a green-card generally means that you can apply for U.S. citizenship in 5 (five) years. In that regard, the senators’ plan does provide a path to citizenship.  However, the contingency of green-cards on border security is what makes the plan controversial.  Critics have said that this will create millions of “second-class citizens” who are unable to obtain even full permanent residency and have no influence over the process.

Path to Citizenship: Obama’s Version

The blueprint for immigration reform posted on the White House website states: “It is just not practical to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants living within our borders. The President’s proposal provides undocumented immigrants a legal way to earn citizenship that will encourage them to come out of the shadows so they can pay their taxes and play by the same rules as everyone else. Immigrants living here illegally must be held responsible for their actions by passing national security and criminal background checks, paying taxes and a penalty, going to the back of the line, and learning English before they can earn their citizenship. There will be no uncertainty about their ability to become U.S. citizens if they meet these eligibility criteria. The proposal will also stop punishing innocent young people brought to the country through no fault of their own by their parents and give them a chance to earn their citizenship more quickly if they serve in the military or pursue higher education.”

Unlike the senators’ plan, Obama’s vision enables undocumented immigrants to obtain green-cards within a certain period of time, regardless of the border security situation.  Once an immigrant has a green-card, he or she is usually eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship after 5 years.

According to a draft proposal leaked to the press, the White House plans to allow undocumented immigrants already in the United States to apply for a newly created “Lawful Prospective Immigrant” visa.  Those who would be approved after passing a background check and fulfilling other requirements would be able to obtain permanent residency in eight years.

Many Democrats and immigrant rights groups have lauded Obama’s vision for a clear path to citizenship it would provide.  Some Republicans, however, criticized the plan for giving an advantage to undocumented immigrants over those who came to the United States legally.

We will certainly hear much more debate before any new immigration law is enacted.  Immigration reform can go many different ways, and it remains to be seen which direction it will ultimately take.

Attorneys at I.S. Law Firm have helped many individuals and corporate clients with their immigration matters.  To explore your immigration options, please contact us at +1-703-527-1779 or via e-mail: [email protected].