Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Obstacles Do Not Deter Commitment to Immigration Reform

by Daniela Martinez Moreno
AFSC, Special Projects Policy Fellow

On September 6 the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law held a hearing on the STRIVE Act of 2007. After Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) brought the hearing to a start, Representative Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL), who introduced the STRIVE Act, raised serious concerns about Congress' inaction on comprehensive immigration reform, indicating that "we need to roll up our sleeves, engage friends from both sides of the aisle, and negotiate workable solutions that can effectively address the problem."

Local Official Requests Federal Immigration Enforcement Powers

In the absence of federal legislation, states across the country have passed local ordinances on immigration as identified by Corey Stewart, the Board of Directors Chairman for Prince William County in the state of Virginia. Stewart's testimony during the hearing included asking Congress to grant local officials the power to enforce federal immigration laws, such as imposing fines on homeowners renting to undocumented immigrants. However, these kinds of powers were found unconstitutional by a federal court in the Hazleton decision this summer.

Increasing involvement of state and local police authorities in the enforcement of federal civil immigration laws will not address issues faced by immigrant or refugee communities. Rather, these types of harmful measures may discourage individuals from reporting crimes committed against them or which they may have witnessed, or from seeking other assistance from local policing agencies. They may also lead to racial profiling and discrimination.
>To see a link of an AFSC Analysis to Key Provisions of the STRIVE Act click here

"Amnesty" Argument Taking Valuable Time from Debate, Chairman Says

Representative John Conyers (D-MI), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, expressed concerns that the fight over the term "amnesty" was taking valuable time from the immigration debate and creating an "unnecessary anti-immigrant bias." Representative Steve King (R-IA, and Ranking Minority Member of the House Immigration Subcommittee) suggested that the bill would provide "amnesty." Representative Jeff Flake (D-AZ, co-sponsor of the STRIVE Act), however, defined the term amnesty as an "unconditional pardon for breach of law," and emphasized that this act would not represent an unconditional pardon because it would create a set of rules to allow people to admit their undocumented status, pay a fine, touchback (e.g., return to their home country) for a certain period of time, and re-enter the U.S. under a new legal system.

"Playing By the Rules" Myth Debunked

One issue mentioned during the hearing was precisely the idea that there are some who manage to "play by the rules" and achieve lawful status after entering the United States. Both Representative Brian Bilbray (R-CA) and Representative King (R-IA) mentioned that they had been descendants of immigrants that "played by the rules" and earned lawful status. However, this notion that the immigration law necessarily benefits those who "play by the rules" was contradicted by the words of small business owner Tony Wasilewski, and US Navy Petty Officer Eduardo Gonzalez.

Mr. Wasilewski's wife Janina arrived in the United States from Poland, applied for asylum but her case was denied and she was subsequently deported. In the case of Mr. Gonzalez's wife Mildred, her marriage to Mr. Gonzalez nullified her ability to obtain legal status through her mother because she was no longer an unmarried daughter under 21 years of age. She now faces deportation.

While attempting to abide by immigration laws, both their wives exposed themselves to the convoluted and austere immigration system. Although Mr. Wasilweski is soon to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, and Petty Officer Gonzalez was granted citizenship in 2005, the only action that would help their wives' cases is a comprehensive overhaul of the broken immigration system. >To read more about their cases click here.

A brief discussion ensued in which Representative King questioned Mr. Gonzalez about his citizenship status, suggesting that he would like to, "see us identify more as Americans first. It seems to me that it was missing in your testimony." Mr. Gonzalez responded that he was a U.S. citizen. Representative Gutierrez however, commented, "Shame on any institution that has a panel such as this and then questions their Americanism, their right to say I love this country. We say that each and every day."

STRIVE Act Passage "Unlikely," But Commitment Continues for Broad Overhaul

Representative Flake observed, "[I]t appears unlikely for the STRIVE Act to pass and that is unfortunate." Nonetheless, the various Congresspersons who participated at the hearing concurred that the current immigration system is in dire need of repairs. As Representative Gutierrez observed in his closing remarks, "We are the majority, we got elected to lead. Let's figure out comprehensive immigration a bi-partisan manner."