Is This the Immigration Reform Weâve Been Waiting For?

Activists marching in support of the the DREAM Act

Last week, the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Eight released an immigration reform bill to cautious praise and protest alike from both immigration advocates and opponents. Latino groups, employee unions, Silicon Valley representatives, and anti-immigration advocates have all weighed in on the bill, but the question remains an open one: Is this the comprehensive immigration reform we’ve been waiting for? To answer this question, EBONY.com discussed the proposed legislation with Opal Tometi of the Black Immigration Network and Loide Jorge, a D.C. immigration attorney and member of the Congressional Black Caucus’ Rapid Response Team on immigration reform.

The ladies agreed without hesitation that this bill was an important first step, but far from the comprehensive reform that it’s being touted as. “Sadly, what we see with the Senate’s immigration bill is that they’ve decidedly moved away from having an immigration system that is family-based to one that is employment-based,” says Opal. The bill eliminates family reunification green cards for siblings of U.S. citizens and married children over 30 years old. This could be detrimental for immigrants from countries throughout Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, places where close-knit, extended families are integral to raising children and other cultural dynamics. On the other hand, Loide points out that, “While the bill does eliminate sibling and married children green cards, it now allows an unlimited number of green cards for spouses and minor children, including those of permanent residents.”

The bill also eliminates the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. Every year, 55,000 green cards are granted through the program to immigrants from countries with historically low rates of immigration. Colorlines reports that half of the visas are granted to applicants from a handful of African countries, notably Ethiopia, Ghana, and Kenya.  “Eliminating the diversity visas could essentially eliminate immigrants from the African diaspora,” says Loide. Opal couldn’t agree more. “It is very evident that black immigrant needs were dismissed when they came to this decision,” she adds. “There are few other means by which migrants from places with high black populations can migrate legally.” However, Loide enthusiastically noted that another avenue for highly skilled immigrants of African descent may present itself through the proposed “entrepreneurial visas” and for low-skilled workers through the proposed W visa. The bill would create up to 120,000 new visas per year for foreign-born entrepreneurs who want to start a business in the U.S. and an initial 20,000 visas for low-skilled workers.

Another controversial aspect of the bill is the costly 13 year timeline for a path to citizenship in stages that require those who apply to maintain a certain level of income, pay $2,000 in fines, and re-register every 6 years. The bill also excludes hundreds of thousands of people who came in the U.S. after December 31, 2011, including those who’ve received Temporary Protected Status. “It’s a path but not an easy path, Loide admits, “Some would even call it punitive.” Opal adds that the fines and lengthy timeline “uniquely impact immigrants of color“ who already confront issues of unemployment and low wages. “Many can’t imagine waiting another 13 years to be eligible for citizenship and most have already paid fees over the years.”

The 13 year path to citizenship is also dependent upon “enforcement before legalization”, fundamentally tying any path to citizenship for the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants (except DREAMers and agricultural workers) to first meeting border security and law enforcement targets. Opal reminded me that, “Detention and deportation still impact black immigrants at disproportionate rates, despite them being a smaller segment of the general immigrant population.” Reflecting on this point, Loide added that, “This current bill doesn’t reconsider the broad definition of ‘aggravated felony’ that has largely lead to the criminalization of immigrants of color.” Currently under immigration law, an aggravated felony includes everything from failing to appear in court to trafficking in firearms. If this category remains so broad even as aggressive enforcement measures increase, many immigrants of color may find themselves facing deportation proceedings and unable to even qualify for the 13 year path.

“Ultimately, we know this fight is even deeper than reform, it’s about the rights of all people” says Opal. This bill is far from the comprehensive immigration reform that we were promised. However, what the Gang of Eight has provided us is a first step, a launching pad to continue the debate for true reform and to work to eliminate the inherent inequalities on our current immigration system.