It's All About Immigration
Saturday, 02 February 2008
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The REAL ID Act was signed into law by President Bush last week. Criticized by immigrant rights activists around the country and even by some of the legislators who voted for it, the REAL ID Act creates a national standard for identification which will effectively prohibit undocumented immigrants from obtaining full licenses. The provisions will also make it more difficult for victims of persecution in their homeland to obtain asylum in the U.S.

"This bill was attached to a must-pass military spending bill and so didn't get the debate and discussion it deserved," said Thomas Keown of the Irish Immigration Center in Boston. "Its supporters use national security as the reason for its passage, but in reality this act penalizes immigrants and doesn't enhance security at all."

Twice before, the Senate had rejected REAL ID but with its provisions attached to an Iraq War appropriations bill it seems Senators felt unable to hold the line against REAL ID at the expense of a key military funding bill.

The new law, which will take effect over the next three years, will require all states to follow federal guidelines when issuing driver's licenses. Anyone applying for or renewing a driver's license will be required to show proof that they are a U.S. citizen or are legally permitted to be here. If states don't comply their licenses will not be accepted for identification in federal buildings or for domestic air travel. Extensive public debate on the subject over the last months has pitted the subject of national security and border security against immigrants' rights.

"The anti-immigrant right pushed hard, and they won this particular battle. But there's an old trade union saying: 'don't mourn, organize!' That's exactly what we need to do now - come together to campaign for an immigration reform bill that will legalize the undocumented and make the REAL ID Act irrelevant," said Isaac Hodes of the Immigrant Rights Program at the IIC.

 

A Light on the Horizon

 

There is a light on the horizon for those adversely affected by the REAL ID provisions. Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain have introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill to the U.S. Senate. The Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act would offer legalization for undocumented immigrants who would be able to apply for a green card after six more years of work. During that period they would be able to work legally. Currently the legislation would include most undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. on May 12, 2005, the date the legislation was introduced.

The bill also stresses family reunification increasing the number of visas available to family members in an effort to clear the huge backlog of those already waiting to reunite. It will also offer a new H5A visa for temporary workers. They could apply if they have a valid job offer. They would need to pay a fee and the H5A visa would allow them to work legally in the U.S. for three years, and could be renewed once for an additional three years. At the end of six years they could apply for legal resident status and an employer could sponsor them for their green card at any time.

Undocumented students will be eligible for the legalization program. They will be able to count secondary school and college years toward the six-year work requirement for a green card.

The Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act also addresses security issues and enforcement of immigration laws. Workplace enforcement will be stricter under the bill. Fines for employers will be increased and the worker verification system will be upgraded to an electronic system. Fines collected will reimburse local authorities who enforce immigration law, as well as funding civics and ESL classes, and providing reimbursement to hospitals who serve undocumented immigrants.

Those who work for immigrant rights see this as much-needed legislation. "The Real ID Act was a setback for Immigrant Rights but the Kennedy-McCain legislation offers much cause for optimism. It will take a big effort from immigrants groups to get it passed and, while there are still some questions to be answered about its proposals, its recognition of the need for a path to legalization is extremely positive," said the IIC's Thomas Keown.

Representatives Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), Jim Kolbe (R-AZ), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) introduced an identical piece of legislation in the House of Representatives.

While the REAL ID Act is already law, this new legislation is only a proposal and is unlikely to be voted upon until 2006. Amendments will likely be introduced, the bill must clear committees and be approved in both houses, before receiving the President's signature. Supporters of the bill are optimistic about it because it has support from both parties in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. However, it will be some time before it will be considered for passage. Immigration centers around the U.S. are cautioning their clients not to get ahead of themselves as the bill is only a proposal at this time.

Mr. Dermot Ahern T.D., Minister for Foreign Affairs, warmly welcomed the bill saying, "In my meetings with both Senator Kennedy and Senator McCain, and with other political leaders in Washington, I have been greatly encouraged by the strength of their commitment to immigration reform. I now warmly welcome their important, timely and very positive contribution to advancing the debate on this sensitive issue. The priority now is for all concerned to intensify their lobbying in what is a difficult environment. In this regard, I have consistently made it clear that for the Ambassador and the Embassy in Washington, and the staff of the Consulates in the U.S., this issue has the highest priority."

The legislation opens the door for bi-partisan discussion on comprehensive immigration reform that would creates a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers, while it ensures workers rights, and reunifies families. "For too long, our country has suffered the failures of a system that is unfair, dangerous and unenforceable," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. "For the first time in decades, we have a realistic solution before us. This legislation balances the need to reunify families, protect all workers, document the undocumented and enhance our national security so our immigration system is safe, secure and orderly."

Some immigrants' rights groups have wholeheartedly embraced the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act. Others are responding more cautiously praising the aim of the legislation while expressing some concerns about specific aspects. One area of concern is the adequate protection of workers during the six year period they are working prior to green card eligibility. Some, like the National Immigration Law Center, want assurances that unscrupulous employers will not be able to bypass and abuse the system so that they can exploit immigrant and other US workers.

The critics of the Kennedy-McCain proposal complain that it is an amnesty in exchange for promises down the line. They say we've heard the rhetoric before and liken it to the 1986 amnesty which was supposed to solve the U.S. illegal immigration problems.

Many contrasting viewpoints have been expressed in just the few days since the bill was presented. There is no doubt the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act has set the stage for a national discussion. The eyes of the world - especially the millions of undocumented immigrants - will be watching the U.S. as the Kennedy-McCain legislation is debated.




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