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Earlier this week, President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators introduced separate plans to fix the country’s immigration system while supporting illegal immigrants already living and working in the U.S.
The group of senators introduced their plan on Monday, and Obama outlined a similar plan during a speech in Las Vegas on Tuesday. While the senators and Obama expressed optimism that reform could be implemented in a humane way after several failed attempts in the past, local immigrant advocates cautiously celebrated the announcement.
“It’s a strong statement, and a very important step in the long road ahead of us,” said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA).
He could not specify how many illegal immigrants live and work in Los Angeles, but said at least 4 million of the country’s 11.7 million live in Los Angeles County. Miami, New York and L.A. have the largest population of the demographic in the country, Cabrera said.
“We think immigration reform will have a great, great impact on the lives of these communities,” he added.
The senators proposed creating a tough but fair path to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently residing in the U.S., reforming the legal immigration system, creating an employment verification system and establishing a better process for admitting future workers.
Specifically, they proposed creating a pathway to citizenship that is contingent upon the country’s success in securing its borders and addressing visa overstays. The plan calls for additional resources at the border, such as new technology, infrastructure and additional personnel. It would also increase the use of unmanned aircraft, surveillance equipment and manpower at the border.
The senators hope to enhance the training of border patrol agents, complete an entry-exit system that tracks people entering the country, require illegal immigrants to register with the government and pass background checks, and create a commission of governors, attorneys general and community leaders in border states to make recommendations regarding the bill’s security measures.
Once the borders are deemed secure, illegal immigrants seeking citizenship will be required to go to the back of the line. Under the plan, they must pass another background check, pay taxes, learn English and civics and demonstrate a history of work in the U.S. Once completed, applicants will get a green card.
People who entered the country as a child will not face such requirements, and agricultural workers will have a different process to obtain citizenship due to their role “in ensuring that Americans have safe and secure agricultural products to sell and consume,” according to the plan.
Additionally, the legislators are looking to revamp the legal immigration system so that it focuses on the character traits that will help build the American economy and strengthen families. They are also seeking to create an employment verification system that will be a fast and reliable method to determine if an applicant is legally allowed to work in the U.S. The plan would allow employers to hire undocumented workers if the companies are unsuccessful in luring an American to fill the position.
“We still have a long way to go, but this bipartisan blueprint is a major breakthrough,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said during a press conference Monday.
He said the group, which also includes Sens. John McCain, Dick Durbin, Lindsey Graham, Robert Menendez, Michael Bennet and Jeff Flake, hopes to have its proposal drafted into legislation by March, with a Senate vote by late spring or early summer. The group began meeting in December, Schumer said.
On Tuesday, Obama introduced his plan, which was very similar to what the senators proposed on Monday. His proposal, though, did not make the pathway to citizenship contingent on the country’s ability to secure the borders.
“The time has come for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform,” Obama said. “Now is the time.”
Miracle Mile attorney Marla Schechter, who specializes in family and employment immigration, said the immigration reform efforts could “absolutely” be a positive for local illegal immigrants.
However, she cited the lower than expected number of applicants for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which deferred deportations for undocumented people who came to the U.S. as children and have pursued education or military service. Schechter speculated that some illegal immigrants declined the opportunity for fear of what the government would do with the information.
“People are very unsure of their safety and their family’s safety in disclosing that information,” she said. “That resistance will have to change, and I don’t think it will without bipartisan support for immigrant reform. But it’s coming.”
Schechter said it is difficult to determine how positive the reform effort will be, as the proposals simply laid the groundwork for future legislation and lack clarity. She said her clients who are illegal truly want to be legal citizens, which allows greater access to opportunities.
“They’ve been living like second-class citizens for the last several years,” Schechter said. She said it will be interesting to see how the government balances the needs of the illegal immigrant community with the government’s need to reduce the incentives for people looking to enter the country illegally.
“Obviously, this cannot be the haven for every individual in need around the world,” Schechter said. “We have limited resources, and they’re getting stretched thinner and thinner.”
She said some of her clients, even those who speak little English, have been learning about the reform proposals. The local attorney said the news has been uplifting for some of her clients, and has improved their comfort level.
Many illegal immigrants were likely comforted by the senators’ proposal to have deportations stop once the legislation is approved. It was certainly welcome news to CHIRLA, which estimates that approximately 15,000 people have been deported in the last three and a half years by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
“In spite of L.A. being one of the most immigrant friendly cities … the sheriff’s department is certainly out of the step with the rest of the state,” Cabrera said, adding that L.A. County has the second-most deportations of any county in the country. “That’s a concern that we have when we do not have an immigrant reform policy that is national.”
He said CHIRLA would request a moratorium to end deportations if any serious proposal advances in Congress.
While there are many details for legislators to iron out over the next few months, CHIRLA is pleased that a bipartisan group of legislators is looking to reform the system once and for all.
“It’s a great step in the right direction,” Cabrera said. “No matter what community you live in, this is going to impact us all. Every American has to be involved in this dialogue.”
During his speech on Tuesday, Obama acknowledged the efforts of the senators, saying that their principles align with his proposal. He said there seems to be a genuine, bipartisan desire to get immigration reform passed.
“That’s very encouraging, but this time, action must follow,” Obama said, adding that if Congress can’t pass a bill, he will draft one and insist that legislators vote on it right away. “It won’t be a quick process, but it will be a fair process.”
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