Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The State of the Union: Seven Years of Unfilled Promises on Immigration Reform

Did this year's State of the Union address sound all too familiar?

Since 2004, President Bush mentioned immigration reform in every State of the Union address. However, those remarks and not a change to the nation's broken immigration system may remain his only legacy on immigration, according to commentators (Washington Post).

A Walk down Memory Lane: Immigration in the State of the Union Address

Over the past four years, the President spoke consistently about an immigration system that reflects the nation's values, a temporary worker program, and border enforcement measures. "America's immigration system is also outdated - unsuited to the needs of our economy and to the values of our country," the President stated in his 2005 address.

Last year, President Bush pressed Congress to reach an agreement on immigration policy. "Convictions run deep in this Capitol when it comes to immigration. Let us have a serious, civil, and conclusive debate, so that you can pass, and I can sign, comprehensive immigration reform into law," he said.

This year, the President failed to press Congress to address immigration, and side-stepped the issue expressing that it is, "complicated, but can be resolved." This tacit observation by the outgoing President is surely a message for the next administration since it will have to lead the policy discourse on this critical domestic concern, a perspective shared with some members of Congress.

As he also pointedly remarked during his address, "Yet, history will record that amid our differences, we acted with purpose." Unfortunately, the White House and Congressional leaders did not hammer out clear, rationale or long-term solutions. Instead, an increasing number of punitive and enforcement-focused measures were at the core of the Bush Administration's immigration principles.

Looking Ahead: A "Sensible and Humane" Approach Long Overdue

Four years ago, when the President sought the public's support for immigration reform, he specified that a temporary worker program would include "a path to citizenship for those that respect the law." However, since then he has never mentioned a path to citizenship in his subsequent State of the Union addresses to the nation.

This year, and for the first time, the President specified support for a "sensible and humane" way to address the situation of immigrants living and working in the U.S. without employment authorization. Looking ahead, Congressional leaders will need to arrive at the bipartisan negotiating table with clarity and vision that helps bring the immigration discourse to a fruitful conclusion and which ultimately leads to sensible policies and humane legislation.

Outgoing President Bush has failed to press Congress for a resolution this year. This current situation, however, has not deterred immigrant and refugee communities in their continued efforts to advocate for tangible results which end the broken record of promises, fix the nation's outdated immigration system, keeps families together and leads to an economically vibrant and inclusive nation for all.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Speaking Truth against Immigrant Bashing

"This is the most mean-spirited piece of legislation I have seen in my 30 years down here," said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) about an English-only bill introduced this month in the Virginia Senate. The bill (SB 339), introduced by Virginia State Senator Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax), allows employers to fire employees for "inability" to speak English at the workplace and deny them unemployment benefits.

"I am appalled that my state senator ... has proposed legislation that would create a climate of fear..." wrote Dick Lessard of Centreville, Virginia. The bill targets immigrants authorized to work in the U.S. since undocumented employees are already ineligible for unemployment benefits. "If a job requires command of English, then an employer should assess applicants' language skills before making a job offer, not after," Lessard wrote.

Senator Cuccinelli said that he drafted the bill after one employer complained that his unemployment taxes increased because he fired an employee who did not learn English. However, when questioned, Cuccinelli could not recall the employer's name (Washington Post).

An editorial in yesterday's Washington Post describes the bill as based on blame-shifting, overzealousness and xenophobia. "Mr. Cuccinelli's bill rates poor English as an offense on a par with substance abuse, lying about past criminal convictions, missing work and committing infractions that cost an employer his business license - all of them equal grounds for denying unemployment benefits to a fired worker. That's absurd on its face," writes the Post.

"This odious immigrant bashing rhetoric ignores the daily contribution of hard working immigrants to the Virginia economy," said Jean-Louis Peta Ikambana, Area Director of AFSC's DC Peace and Economic Justice Program. "I wonder if at the end of the day, the legislators drafting anti-immigrant bills ask whether the food they enjoy in a restaurant, the beautiful houses they live in, and the clean floors of their offices are the work of English speaking-only Americans," he said.

A Minute of your Time: Speak Out!

  • Write a letter to the editor thanking the Washington Post for the editorial entitled "Second Class Citizens." Let them know that you are one more voice speaking out against xenophobia and the immigrant-bashing legislation recently introduced in Virginia.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Hurry to Wait: The Naturalization Bureaucracy Wall

"Were we caught off guard by the volume? Let's just say it was anticipated it would increase. It was not anticipated it would increase by that much," said Emilio Gonzalez, director of Citizenship and Immigration Services.
- (Associated Press - November 2007)

Complete your application forms and have the required fees, photographs and fingerprints in hand and wait your turn. If only the U.S. naturalization process was as simple as it was supposed to be! Now, thousands of applicants - after rushing to apply before a major fee increase was imposed - are now expected to wait for months on end due to the significant backlog in the processing and review of naturalization applications.

Several days ago, the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and Immigration Law held a hearing on the delays and problems in the naturalization application process. According to Subcommittee Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), "This should not have been a surprise. It was totally predictable," the Baltimore Sun reports.

Unfortunately, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) now estimate an 18-month backlog in the processing of the naturalization applications that have already been received. A significant number of current permanent residents filed their naturalization application hoping to vote in the upcoming November election - their first opportunity to exercise their voting rights as newly minted voters. Little did they realize they would be facing yet another barrier in this process.

The public outcry, delays and waiting period has drawn the attention of Congressional leaders who are troubled with this situation.

Action Needed: Recommendations

Addressing the current naturalization backlog requires focus, institutional coordination and cooperation. This is possible if the USCIS is truly committed to resolving this bureaucratic impasse. These steps include:

  • Monitor USCIS to ensure that an expeditious and efficient process is implemented in the review and approval process.
  • The House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and Immigration Law should hold quarterly hearings or receive written reports from USCIS officials to ensure that progress has been made, and to address any ongoing gaps that limit the expeditious processing of naturalization applications.
  • The public should contact Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), and urge her leadership and encourage the Committee to request monthly reports in which information is provided on the number of applications reviewed and processed, and the number of individuals who have taken the oath of citizenship.

Friday, January 18, 2008

REAL ID Regulations Anything but "Final"

by Daniela Martinez Moreno
AFSC Special Projects Policy Fellow

On January 11, nearly three years after enactment of the REAL ID Act of 2005, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released final regulations establishing minimum standards for state-issued driver's licenses and identification cards. These regulations received a mixed reception including criticism from several members of Congress.

The final rule requires all individuals under the age of 50 to carry REAL-ID compliant driver's licenses and identification cards by the year 2014 in order for those documents to be accepted for federal purposes. Individuals over the age of 50 will have until the year 2017 to obtain these forms of identifications.

A Series of Extensions for Implementation of REAL ID

States have 60 days to apply for an extension for the implementation of REAL ID after the final rule is published in the Federal Register. States that apply will be granted an extension until December 31, 2009.

By May 11, 2008, a driver's license or identification card issued by a state that has not applied for an extension will not be accepted by federal agencies for official purposes. The final rule defines "official purposes" as "access to Federal facilities, boarding Federally-regulated commercial aircraft, entry into nuclear power plants, and such other purposes as established by the Secretary of Homeland Security".

The final regulations establish a procedure for states to apply for an additional extension by October 11, 2009, provided that they demonstrate they have achieved "certain milestones towards compliance with the Act and the final rule," specified in the DHS REAL ID Final Regulations. DHS will grant the second extension until May 11, 2011, at which time the state must begin issuing fully compliant REAL ID driver's licenses and identification cards.

States Stand in Opposition to REAL ID

DHS asserts that states are not mandated to participate in REAL ID. Individuals from states that do not choose to issue REAL ID-compliant driver's licenses and identification cards can still present other forms of acceptable identification - such as a U.S. passport - for official purposes, according to DHS.

In 2007, several states enacted legislation prohibiting compliance with REAL ID including Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina.

Members of Congress Oppose REAL ID

Several members of Congress spoke in opposition to REAL ID after DHS issued the final regulations. Both Senators Tester and Max Baucus (D-MT) reaffirmed their opposition to REAL ID. Senator Baucus emphasized the need to safeguard the country's security without compromising the privacy of Americans.

Senators Daniel Akaka (D-HI) and John E. Sununu (R-NH) also expressed disappointment over the final regulations released by DHS. Representative Tom Allen (D-ME) responded to the final REAL ID regulations by stating, "REAL ID imposes a costly mandate on states that require them to gather, scan, and retain personal information about everyone who seeks a driver's license or identification card, raising serious privacy concerns".

Senators Akaka and Sununu are co-sponsors of the Identification Security Enhancement Act of 2007 (S. 717), a bill that would repeal Title II of the REAL ID Act of 2005 and reinstitute section 7212 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. Representative Allen (D-ME) is the sponsor of H.R. 1117, the House version of the Identification Security Enhancement Act of 2007.

Organizations Find REAL ID Problems Unresolved

Barry Steinhardt and Tim Sparapani of the American Civil Liberties Union stated that by delaying the implementation of REAL ID, DHS seems to have passed the problems of the statute on future administrations. The ACLU also argues that the final regulations fail to address many of the concerns raised by the more than 21,000 comments that the DHS received during the comment period. According to David Quam, director of federal relations for the National Governors Association, the final regulations "put us at the beginning of the process, not the end" (Washington Post).

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Immigration Not Wedge Issue in New Hampshire's Primary

What issues did voters consider in the recently held New Hampshire primary? According to CNN and New York Times exit polls, the economy and the war on Iraq ranked as the top two issues for voters of both parties. Although Republicans rated undocumented immigration third, the percentage fell from 33 percent during the Iowa caucuses to 22 percent in New Hampshire (Houston Chronicle).

Both Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), who won the New Hampshire primary and Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), who won the Iowa caucuses support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (Pew Forum). A University of Iowa poll (March 2007) found that the majority of Iowans support a path to citizenship. The majority of voters favoring New Hampshire primary winner Senator John McCain (R-AZ), also support an opportunity for undocumented immigrants to apply for citizenship (NY Times).

Moreover, according to the Houston Chronicle, TV campaign ads critical of McCain's support of immigration reform did not set back his bid for New Hampshire, and in fact, worked in his favor. In exit polls taken, the majority of Republican candidate Governor Mitt Romney's supporters ranked undocumented immigration as the top issue (NY Times).

Following the primary results, Republican candidate Mike Huckabee retracted previous statements in which he expressed support for a change in the Constitution's 14th amendment which would deny citizenship to the US-born children of undocumented immigrants. Among its stipulations the 14th Amendment guarantees birthright citizenship to those born on U.S. soil.

Whether immigration will rank higher in upcoming primaries remains uncertain, but one point resonates - anti-immigrant rhetoric fails. Despite a misguided anti-immigrant fervor, the majority of the American public continue to support a humane solution to the nation's out-of-date immigration system.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Iowa "Radio Row" on Wrong Wavelength

Last week's "Iowa 2007 Radio Row," a broadcast marathon in Des Moines focused on immigration, marked a misleading attempt to bring the immigration debate to tonight's Iowa caucuses, according to the Des Moines Register. "It will be worse if Iowans fall for this ruse and give their support on Thursday night to presidential candidates who play to people's fears," the editorial stated.

The Real Story of Iowa's Immigrants

The portrayal of immigrants by these radio hosts are completely inaccurate, according to Sandra Sanchez, program director of AFSC's Immigrant Voice Program based in Des Moines, Iowa. Since 1995 the program has worked towards the civic integration of Iowa's immigrant community.

"I have worked for years assisting immigrants' integration as full participants of their communities. Volunteers and staff have spent countless hours filling out immigration and citizenship applications. Our clients hardly find English as a Second Language (ESL) classes that fit their needs as parents and working adults," Sanchez said.

Demographics Change Iowa Landscape

As baby-boomers retire and Iowan college graduates move elsewhere, Iowa's workforce will experience important changes, including the need for thousands of new workers by 2012, based on estimates of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Sanchez expressed concerns about the impact these demographic shifts may have on her 15-years of direct community work with immigrants and other efforts to attract newcomers to fill employers' needs for workers.

"For the country's sake, Congress and President Bush should resolve in the new year to forge an agreement on immigration reform... [O]therwise, until the election of a new president and Congress or beyond, the issue will continue to stir distrust of government and harden the nation's heart," the Des Moines Register wrote.

Shifting Attitudes toward Immigrants

Community organizers and social activists working in the areas of integration and cultural diversity have expressed their growing frustration with a troubling media trend, which increasingly depicts undocumented workers and immigrants in a negative and harmful manner. According to Sonia Tuma, AFSC Central Region Director, there is a measurable shift in attitudes among Iowans.

"My staff has reported a shift from an openly welcoming spirit to a distrustful and even rude attitude among some Iowans towards immigrants and towards Latinos in general. This disturbing change is not yet as pervasive, and AFSC is committed to stop it in its tracks," said Tuma.

Calls for Responsible Reporting & Dialogue

The nation's media has the professional and ethical responsibility to cover news events and policy issues while adhering to professional industry standards grounded in factual and objective reporting. "It is irresponsible to spread inaccurate information; it perpetuates ignorance and in this particular case, it polarizes our communities," said Alex Orozco, director of the Network Against Human Trafficking, in Des Moines.

"AFSC encourages Iowa's leaders and residents to undertake an inclusive and genuine dialogue on immigration and lead the nation in showing that divisiveness and hate will not be tolerated; it benefits no one, and it is not welcomed here," concluded Sanchez.