JURIST Guest Columnist Sabrina Ramirez, Barry University School of Law, Class of 2014, discusses the new immigration reform and the Hispanic vote's impact on the reform...
The Immigration Bill
Immigration reform, a highly politicized topic, polarizes the country in two factions; those that support freer immigration policies versus those that want a more restrictive approach. On April 16, 2013 Senator Schumer (New York), a member of the bipartisan group of senators dubbed the immigration "Gang of Eight," introduced Senate Bill 744 Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, yet another attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform. The 844-page bill proposes many changes to the current immigration system including the retention of highly skilled workers by granting the group permanent residency status, a guest and agricultural worker programs to meet labor demands and even the adoption of the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act of 2013). But most importantly, the bill creates a path to citizenship by creating the registered provisional immigrant status for the 11 million illegal immigrants present in the US, contingent on effectively securing the border.
In framing the political discourse, the drafters were very careful in not using the word amnesty, but in essence, the path to citizenship is amnesty because the government will pardon a group that violated immigration law by granting legal status that allows them to remain on US soil, travel and work. The bipartisan effort is a response to a changing electorate, and a race to gain the Hispanic vote, a voting bloc that will determine future elections and a community deeply affected by the broken immigration system.
The Registered Provisional Immigrant
Section 2101 of Senate Bill 744 amends the Immigration and Nationality Act by adding section 245B, which creates a registered provisional immigrant category. This new classification will in effect provide amnesty for illegal immigrants provided they meet certain qualifications.
To become a registered provisional immigrant an alien must satisfy the following prerequisites:
- • Must be physically present in the US at the time the bill is enacted and at the time they submit their application, and must prove a continuous presence in the US before December 31, 2011. A brief, casual or innocent absence can still meet the continuous presence requirement.
- • No criminal convictions. If an alien has been convicted of a felony, aggravated felony, or three or more misdemeanors for which the alien was convicted on three different dates in an American jurisdiction, the alien is disqualified. If the crime was committed in a foreign nation and such crime is illegal in the US, the alien cannot apply to become a registered provisional immigrant. Finally, if the alien engaged in unlawful voting, the alien cannot seek adjustment of status under the new bill.
Even if the alien satisfies the continuous and physical presence requirement and has no disqualifying criminal record, the applicant must:
- • Pass a security and law enforcement clearance.
- • Provide the Department of Homeland Security with biometric and biographic information.
- • Pay taxes in accordance with 6203 of the Internal Revenue Code 1986 and show proper documentation of compliance.
- • Pay any processing fee which include application, the cost of gathering biometric screening data and a $1,000 penalty fee. All proceeds must be deposited in the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Trust Fund established under 6(a)(1) of the act.
Even though congress wants to send a strong message that it does not reward those that came into the country illegally, they will be giving them the biggest reward of all, to remain in the country by granting a pardon to those that violated immigration laws. More importantly, the applicant will be considered admitted and lawfully present in the US on the date the application is filed. The applicant can no longer be removed from the US. Once the adjustment to registered provisional immigrant is granted, identification will be provided which serves as a three year work permit, and grants the ability to travel outside the US provided that the absence does not exceed 180 days.
Overall, Congress will be granting amnesty by providing an opportunity to the illegal immigrant population to remain in the country, work and travel.
The Importance of the Hispanic Vote
The immigration reform bill was drafted with the Hispanic population in mind. The Hispanic bloc will be the swing vote in future American elections. According to the Census Bureau's Voting Report from the November 2012 Elections [PDF], Hispanic turnout was 48 percent, almost 2 percent down from the previous election year (49.9 percent in 2008). Out of the 23.3 million Hispanics of voting age only 11.2 million voted in the last election. Hispanics make up 17 percent of the US population; however, 24 percent are under the age of eighteen, with about 800,000 becoming eligible to vote each year. The Hispanic bloc has not sworn allegiance to either party, and according to Senator John McCain from Arizona, if the immigration reform bill passes, he does not think that his party will "gain a single Hispanic vote immediately," however, "what it does is it puts us on a level playing field to compete for those votes."
Moreover, Hispanic voters are paying close attention to the immigration debate. According to a Latino Decisions poll, 58 percent of the participants rated immigration reform as the most important issue that Congress and the President need to address. In addition, in a national exit poll, 77 percent of Hispanic voters agreed that congress should offer an opportunity for illegal immigrants to apply for legal status when asked what should happen to illegal immigrants.
The reality is that the current immigration laws have deeply affected Hispanic families. According to the Shattered Families Report by the Applied Research Center (ARC) 397,000 people were removed from the US during 2011, the largest number in the agency's history and during the first six months of the year more than 46,000 were mothers and fathers of US citizen-children. These removals have separated families, with the children ending in foster care and parental rights terminated, making family reunification extremely difficult. ARC estimates that there are at least 5,100 American citizen children living in foster care because of immigration removal proceedings. At the heart of US immigration policy is family reunification, but the current immigration policy has destroyed many Hispanic families. The registered provisional immigrant category will allow law-abiding parents to become of legal status, thus protecting the family structure, and resolving this shocking flaw in the current system.
The Obama administration finally changed its immigration policy during the 2012 election year by issuing an executive order to stop the removal/deportation of illegal immigrants under the age of 30, who entered the country before they were 16 year of age, had no criminal record nor posed a security threat that were either successful students or served in the military. According to the administration, this was an effort to use resources to prevent current illegal immigration and remove criminals that pose a bigger security threat. Although many critics saw this as a usurpation of congressional power, this political move helped secure 71 percent of the Hispanic votes during the 2012 election for Obama. Congress finally understands how important it is for both parties to pass comprehensive immigration reform if they are to gain the Hispanic vote.
The immigration bill has survived its first major test; on May 21, 2013, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill 13-5. The immigration bill will go to the Senate floor for consideration. The real battle begins, however, when the bill goes to the House of Representatives. The House is working on its own bill, and will take a more conservative approach to the path of citizenship than the one offered by the Senate. Since granting legal status to the 11 million illegal immigrants hinges on effectively securing the border, Congress is likely to find a middle ground and pass the much needed reform. More importantly, both political parties are at a crossroad if they want to gain the Hispanic vote, they must work together to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Sabrina Ramirez works for the Barry University Children and Families Clinic as a certified legal intern. She is also a member of the Hispanic American Law Student Association, Immigration Law Society and Florida Association for Women Lawyers in the Barry University.
Suggested citation: Sabrina Ramirez, Immigration Reform a Race for the Hispanic Vote, JURIST - Dateline, Jun. 25, 2013, http://jurist.org/dateline/2013/06/sabrina-ramirez-immigration-reform.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Fangxing Li, an associate editor for JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org