Immigration Bill May Not Be Everything You Think It Is, Activists Warn

July 5, 2013

By Valeria Fernández
New America Media

PHOENIX — Maricela De Jesus has renewed hope that passage of an immigration bill in the Senate will finally allow her and her husband to step out of the shadows, after 13 years of living in the United States without legal documents.

“It would help me go back to Mexico and see my family,” said De Jesus. “My father died, and I couldn’t go back to see him.”

Senate passage of the immigration reform bill, S. 744, brought tears, joy and hope to thousands of immigrant families in Arizona and millions across the nation. Yet, as it heads for a debate in the House of Representatives, S. 744 may not be the saving grace that many undocumented immigrants like De Jesus believe it to be.

Despite the bill’s strong emphasis on border security, a number of pro-immigrant groups nationally have been urging people to throw their support behind the bipartisan bill. For some, the expansion of border enforcement activity is a bitter pill to swallow, in exchange for a path to citizenship for some of the 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the United States.

But, a number of other pro-immigrant groups have come out strongly against S. 744, citing a lack of analysis and honesty on the part of advocacy groups, politicians and the media, in the way the content of the bill is being portrayed to the immigrant community.

“Are people saying, ‘Sí, se puede’ to 700 miles of border fence, 20,000 more border troops, citizenship that is going to be denied to millions? Yes,” said Roberto Lovato, founding member of Presente.org, a pro-immigrant group. “Do people know this? The answer is no.”

A recent report by the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law estimates that between 4 to 5 million of the 11 million undocumented immigrants that live in the country will not qualify for full legalization under the guidelines set forth by S. 744.

The report, authored by immigration attorney Peter Schey, says immigrants will face a number of steep obstacles in order to go beyond a provisional immigrant status, including payment of back taxes, and showing proof of continuous employment. Many could be forced to the back of the line on government waiting lists, resulting in years of wait time.

“About 4 to 5 million immigrants will most likely be left facing an extremely harsh and unforgiving set of laws almost certain to eventually force their detention and deportation (if detected) or more likely leave them in undocumented status for the rest of their lives (if undetected),” reads the report.

Lovato, a pro-immigrant activist, political strategist and journalist, argued that pro-immigrant groups are “not being completely honest with the community about how horrible these bills are,” out of a concern that they would lose support and momentum for their cause.

The media, Lovato said, has also done a poor job of informing the public, by framing the entire debate as one where immigrants are equated with criminals.

“How does the fact that most of the legislation is about repression not [get] communicated?” he questioned.

A poll by Presente.org and Latino Decisions conducted at the end of May found that more than 80 percent of Latino voters said they follow the immigration debate.

About 54 percent reported knowing little about specific provisions of S. 744 related to increased spending on border security, and 47 percent had heard little or nothing about the increase of border patrol agents.

Dulce Matuz, director of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition (ADAC), had mixed emotions when she watched the U.S. Senate cast a 68-32 vote in favor of S. 744.

“It was a moment of pause, a reality check,” she said.

Matuz’s concerns center around the border enforcement component of the bill, as well as the number of people that may be left out of the legalization equation. She added, however, that reaching some form of legalization is better than being left empty handed.

Promesa Arizona, a pro-immigrant group that has been involved in Latino voter mobilization, celebrated the Senate vote as a victory.

“I tell the community that things may change in the House. At this point, we have to be hopeful and create the power we need to change the [frame of mind] of the House of Representatives,” said Petra Falcón, the group’s director.

In Arizona, strict state immigration laws like SB 1070, which made it mandatory for local police to report people suspected of being undocumented to federal immigration authorities, have taken a toll on the local immigrant community.

“We have felt the worst impact in the country and we’ve been fighting, and winning,” she said. “This is a victory because we’re still in the fight and it’s moving forward.”

Where some see progress, others see sacrificial lambs.

“In this instance, it is not a matter of nobody gets what they want. It’s a matter of one set of people paying the entire price for this (immigration bill),” said Alfredo Gutiérrez, a former Democratic Senator and author of the book “To Sin Against Hope,” a memoir that is critical of the Obama administration’s record deportations.

Carlos Garcia, director of PUENTE, a grassroots pro-immigrant group in Arizona, said the organization hasn’t yet taken a stance on the bill, but its members are concerned about those that will be left out.

“People are thinking 11 million will benefit, when in reality it is only going to be about half,” he said. “This is [being] done on purpose. People are being asked to call for reform blindly, but there’s no conversation of what we want.”

PUENTE works with immigrants who have been arrested in raids orchestrated by Mari-copa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and convicted of felonies, for working with false documents.

“Most people we work with know they won’t qualify if they have this felony,” he said.

The Human Rights Coalition, Coalition to Defeat SB 1070, and No More Deaths are among some of the groups that are opposing S. 744 in Tucson.

“This is only going to get worse in the House (of Representatives),” said Isabel Garcia, an activist and director of the Human Rights Coalition in Tucson. “In the House, they want to have the states do something like SB 1070.”

Keenly aware of why so many are eager for change – any change — in Arizona, Garcia said she doesn’t want to be critical of other groups who are choosing to support the bill.

“The immigrant community is so desperate that they’re led to believe that they’re going to be one of the lucky ones, But the Dreamers who are the lucky ones are saying, ‘What about our parents?’” said Garcia.

Under the current bill, Dreamers — youth who were brought to the United States before they were 16 and have no criminal record — would qualify for an expedited path to citizenship.

Groups like the National Day Laborers Network (ND-LON) and Puente in Arizona are remaining neutral on the bill, but calling for President Obama to use his executive privilege to expand deferred-action to protect not only Dreamers, but also entire families from deportation.

Chris Newman, the legal programs director for NDLON, added: “While the debate in Congress is uncertain, there’s a certainty that the president has the power to stop deportations.”

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