Undocumented workers may soon gain a path to citizenship

A panel at ASU in April discussed the immigration proposal created by the “Gang of Eight.”
(Cydney McFarland/DD)

Ask anyone on the streets of Arizona, and you will find one of the top issues is immigration. There are countless undocumented workers out there who are desperately trying to find work. They want to be in the United States. And they want to be here legally. Now, after many years, they might actually have a decent shot.

During the past few months, a new bill titled the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013” sponsored by Senator Charles Schumer, D-NY, and co-sponsored by rest of the “Gang of Eight,” Sen. Michael Bennet, R-Colo., Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

The new bill would give undocumented workers at path to citizenship as long as they were in the U.S. before Dec. 31, 2011. Immigrants would need to pay back taxes during their time in the U.S., as well as processing fees.

For many immigration advocacy groups, the bill is a victory. The Executive Director of Promise Arizona, Petra Falcon, thinks the bill is the start of something bigger.

“I think the proposal as it is, is a very good start,” Falcon said. “What we care about — in terms of Promise Arizona — has been reuniting families and a pathway to earn citizenship.”

Falcon said the fees are in $500 increments and will end up costing around $2,000 total before someone can obtain a green card.

As for criticisms of the bill, Falcon said the bill lacked the tools necessary to properly integrate the approximately 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S.

“They will need adult education for the most part,” Falcon said. “People will have to learn English. How will they get their skills?”

Jeff Hauser, the political media outreach lead for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, or AFL-CIO, shared a similar sentiment.

“Overall, we are very happy that the Senate is finally taking up the crisis of deportation that has been undermining the country for a couple decades now,” Hauser said. “We think that the elements of the bill that deal with protecting all workers are carefully crafted, and those protections are somewhat fragile, so we’re hoping they remain as they are in the bill going forward. We’re confident (the protections) will, but we have to be vigilant. “

Hauser described these protections as basic rights for immigrant workers, ensuring that employers can’t pay immigrants less than the minimum wage, or create a dangerous work environment.

Hauser said he was confident the bill would be passed, even though it was a long time coming.

“The Republican Party has finally come to terms with the implications of the census and demographic trends,” Hauser said. “They cannot keep an anti-Latino and anti-Asian-American political party and hope to ever retake the White House.

While the bill doesn’t contain all the provisions he would like, Hauser still felt the bill was a strong start to overhauling the United States’ immigration policies.

“Overall, we think that the bill is going in the right places, and we’re very, very encouraged,” he said.

While the bill has received a wide breadth of bipartisan support, it’s not without its opponents. Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican Senator from Alabama, criticized the bill for placing the rights of immigrants above those who are already citizens.

“Our duty is to represent the people that are here, the people whose parents fought the wars and made America great first,” Session said according to the Los Angeles Times. “And even though we have sympathy for the people who want to come here — and even those who’ve been here a long time illegally, we have sympathy for them — we need to be sure that what we do does not place our workers, our people who need jobs, at an adverse advantage.”

But proponents of the bill argue that granting citizenship to the approximately 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S. would provide a boost in tax revenue, not to mention the money from fees and back taxes.

Daria Ovide, a spokeswoman for Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy, or CASE, said it’s imperative that undocumented workers gain the right to work legally and have a public voice, without fear of being deported.

Ovide said her father, who is originally from Mexico, found a stable well-paying job that allowed him to remain in the U.S. However, Ovide pointed out this situation is something of an outlier. She described most worker visa programs as a form of indentured servitude, where a company held all the power. If a worker didn’t agree with something, they could either live with it, or be deported.

Still, Ovide is optimistic about the future.

“The way we (talk about the immigration bill) in union circles, it’s sort of like our first contract,” Ovide said. “We start here, and then we negotiate. And for us, negotiating is voting.”

Lucia Aguirre, a cook working at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport, hopes the bill will be passed quickly — for her brother’s sake.

“At this moment, I think anyone (who doesn’t have rights), right now they don’t care. They just want something so they can work,” she said. “That’s what my brother said.”

Lucia’s brother has been an undocumented worker in the U.S. for 20 years and collects scrap metal to make money.

Lucia gained citizenship through her mother, thanks to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which legalized approximately three million illegal immigrants under President Reagan. Lucia’s brother was not with them when this happened.
Currently, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding hearings on the bill, where U.S. Senators are attaching various amendments to the 844-page bill.

Sen. Charles Schumer, urged his fellow members of the Senate Judiciary Committee not to add harmful amendments that would render the bill inert. But on the other side of the aisle, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced an amendment that would deny a path to citizenship to immigrants.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., countered with an amendment that would allow gay Americans to sponsor foreign-born spouses so that they may acquire green cards.

However those amendments are only a drop in the 300-plus amendment-bucket this bill is floating in. Yet even with all the added provisions, proponents of the bill told The New York Times that they hope to pass the bill by early June.

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