Saturday, May 19, 2007

Fencing off the American Dream

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker social justice organization, today expressed its strong concern with the proposed Senate immigration compromise.

Based on 90 years of work with immigrants and refugees, AFSC supports substantive reform that includes a path to permanent residency for undocumented immigrants, family reunification, demilitarizing the border region, and halting work site raids and detention.

"The proposed legislation will tear apart families and separate workers from their loved ones." says Esther Nieves, Director of AFSC's Project Voice immigrants' rights initiative. "It falls far short of what is needed to address the nation's broken and out-of-date immigration system."

Family unification, the cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy since 1965, will be more difficult under the proposed legislation. It would eliminate the ability of U.S. citizens to petition for residency for their adult children and siblings. The bill also drastically limits the number of available slots for parents of U.S. citizens. The bill does take a step forward by eliminating the current family-based immigration backlog within eight years, but it also sets a retroactive cut-off application date of May 2005. This means that thousands of families' applications will be void and they will be forced to reapply under the new, restrictive point system.

The proposed path to legal residency and citizenship is also riddled with practical problems that would cause severe hardships for immigrants and their loved ones.

"The proposed legislation does offer a limited path to citizenship, but unreasonable provisions, including lengthy waiting periods, fines, a new "merit"-based system, and other punitive hurdles mean that undocumented workers would need to wait from eight to thirteen years to become citizens and pay the equivalent of up to six months wages," says Nieves.

The bill establishes a guest worker visa program, which permits individuals to work in the U.S. for three two-year terms, but requires that they leave for at least one year between each term. These workers would be left without a direct path to permanent residency and vulnerable to unethical employers, as shown by the experience of the Bracero program between the U.S. and Mexican government between 1942 and 1964. Even now, former bracero workers fight for unpaid wages and recount severe mistreatment and exploitation while they were temporary workers.

Punitive Provisions Would Come First

The legalization program and the temporary worker programs would not start until the government has hired 18,000 additional Border Patrol agents and built 370 miles of fencing along the border with Mexico.

"U.S. taxpayers have already spent more than $30 billion to fund more fences, walls, and border agents in the past 12 years and instead of stemming the flow of immigrants, we've created a humanitarian crisis at the border," says Nieves. "More deaths have occurred at the U.S.-Mexico border in the past decade than in the history of the Berlin Wall. It is very troubling that even the flawed positive provisions will not begin until we spend billions more on unsound, inhumane border policies."

The bill also requires funding for 27,500 detention beds per day, annually. The proposal is unclear whether this is in addition to the already overbroad use of detention, or a reaffirmation of the misguided commitment to lock up undocumented immigrants. Either way, detentions, often coupled with home and work site raids and deportation, creates so much pain for families that we must find a more humane and just way to handle alleged violations of immigration laws.

AFSC and its community partners will continue to call upon Congress and the Bush Administration to include immigrants as equal members and contributors and to develop a sound immigration policy. We believe that all future immigration policies must respect and recognize the inherent and equal rights of all members of the human family.

"As a Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee believes in the inherent dignity and worth of all people," said Joyce Miller, assistant general secretary for justice and human rights. "We continue to believe that the U.S. has as much to gain from newly arrived immigrants as it did from those who came to this country in preceding centuries."

The AFSC supports the rights and dignity of all people, regardless of their immigration status. Project Voice, the AFSC immigrant rights initiative, works to uplift migrant voices and strengthen efforts of migrant-led organizations to set an agenda for fair and humane national public policies. AFSC has 90 years experience working with immigrants and refugees and presently works with immigrants in 18 communities in fourteen states and in countries around the world.