Seeking Just and Humane Immigration Reform: Assessing Senate Bill 744

On Thursday, April 20, a group of 8 bi-partisan Senators unveiled a legislative proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013. The bill, if enacted, would represent the broadest changes in immigration policy in the US since 1996. On May 3, United Methodist Women national office and 27 United Methodist Women conference mission teams joined United Methodist bishops and church agencies in a statement regarding the senate bill.

This week, after some 300 possible amendments, the bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in a bi-partisan vote and moved to the Senate floor. An intense amendment process lies ahead, with an expected Senate vote in late June. (We will update you further on amendments that have been made to the bill.)

What’s in the Senate Immigration Reform Bill

  • The bill offers an earned pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. However, that process will take at least 13 years and will cost at least $2,000 per person, a huge hurdle for low wage workers.
  • Hundreds of thousands will not be eligible for the pathway to citizenship. It would only be available to those who arrived before Dec. 31, 2011, have a clean criminal record, and show employment and financial stability. Many immigrant women work in homes and restaurants “off the books,” where it will be difficult to document employment.
  • A  “Registered Provisional Immigration Status” or RPI, would allow eligible immigrants to work in the U.S. and travel home to petition for spouses and children living in the U.S. while waiting for citizenship. However, immigrants with RPI will not be eligible for means-tested public services or for the new Affordable Care Act, which will have a particular impact on women and girls.
  • The bill leads with a punitive approach to immigrants, insisting on border security and systems to ensure that undocumented immigrants cannot work, a long wait, and high fees, before allowing for legalization.
  • Homeland Security must introduce intensified plans for border security, at a cost of $4.5 billion. Border security has already cost billions of dollars with limited results, as it does not address root causes of migration.
  • The bill will eliminate the backlog of family members seeking visas and will make spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents eligible for regularization. However, the bill shifts immigration policy from family-based to employment-based through a merit visa where immigrants gain points to compete for visas. Visas will be expanded for skilled workers, professionals and entrepreneurs. This focus is more to meet the needs of employers than of migrant families.
  • The bill gives an expedited pathway to citizenship for DREAM students and agricultural workers.
  • S 744 expands “guest-worker” programs for short term immigrant labor in the US. It seeks to hold employers of immigrant workers on guest-worker visas accountable for labor rights, and to penalize them for relying primarily on guest workers for their labor force. Rather than offering an ongoing pathway to citizenship for immigrant workers who grow our food and build our homes, this plan would send workers and their families home when the job is done.
  • An “e-verify” system using bio-metric immigrant ID cards will be mandatory for all employers within five years. This system of verifying status in order to get a job has been deeply flawed, leading to unwarranted dismissals. It also moves us towards a national ID card.

Key Advocacy Points

  1. Legalization should not be contingent of border enforcement metrics.
  2. The bill should not invest in costly and failed border enforcement strategies and more fences. Instead, it should address the reasons migrants come and the demand for their labor.
  3. Women and girls’ particular needs should be addressed in the bill, in particular regarding ability to document work in seeking legalization; dependence on a spouse for status; and inability to access health care and other services.
  4. Registered Provisional Immigration Status is a problematic proposal that leaves immigrants in second-class limbo for an extended period. The pathway to legalization should be short, without major obstacles.
  5. If RPI is adopted, immigrants with provisional status (RPI) should have access to health care and public services.
  6. The pathway to citizenship should include all those in the U.S. at the time the law goes into effect (not 2011).
  7. The bill should restore the family-centered visa process as well as Diversity visas.
  8. Immigrants who have felonies or misdemeanors due to their immigration status, or who have served their time and rebuilt their lives, should be eligible for legalization.
  9. The “e-verify” system should not become mandatory.
  10. Rather than “guest worker” programs, immigrants should have the opportunity to choose to migrate to the US with their families with a pathway to citizenship.
  11. The new “Merit Visa” is problematic because it puts the needs of business over the needs of families and the human rights of migrants, excluding the realities of low waged workers.

Bill: Positive but Flawed

Overall, the bill has some positive points but is extremely flawed.

  • It targets undocumented immigrants as “the problem,” and seeks to punish them, rather that recognizing the role of US policy and business in creating the need for millions to migrate in search of work.
  • It keeps in place the punitive system of enforcement, detention and deportation, which has particularly profiled and criminalized people of color. By intensifying border security and policing, the bill institutionalizes this enforcement framework and criminalizes all future undocumented immigrants without addressing the real problems.
  • The bill excludes immigrants from access to Medicaid and other means-tested services, cutting off migrant women from vital maternal health care and children from medical care.

There is considerable momentum for immigration reform in 2013, with support from the White House and leading Democrats and Republicans, Labor, Business leaders and faith groups. Polls show the majority of the U.S. public in support of a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.  This does not mean the road will be easy, or that the final bill will be one that ultimately affirms the dignity and rights of immigrants.

United Methodist Women sees the national debate on immigration as a racial justice issue, a continuation of the civil rights agenda, and a conversation about who gets to be at the table, with voice, vote, rights and dignity, in our democracy.  We work with the United Methodist Task Force on Immigration and conference Immigration Task Forces to carry out General Conference policy on immigration, and to live out our Biblical mandate to “welcome the stranger” and to love others as we love ourselves. For over six years, United Methodist Women have engaged in prayer, education, worship, public witness and advocacy for immigrant rights. We engage in bible study through the spiritual growth study, “Immigration & the Bible,” by Joan Maruskin.

This is a critical moment when our voices can have a significant impact on immigration for many years to come.  Let your senators and representatives know your concerns!

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