Immigration Reform 2013: Millions Of People Could Get Cut Out Of the Pathway To Citizenship


In recent weeks, Republicans have been panicking over the possibility of a pathway to legal citizenship for the "11 million" undocumented immigrants in the United States.

After a bipartisan group of senators presented a plan for immigration reform in late January, conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer declared on Fox News:

"So what we're getting is instant legalization, which is the functional equivalent of a green card."

Well, not exactly. Many undocumented immigrants may not even be eligible to apply for a green card under a bipartisan reform plan.

Colorlines recently published a helpful infographic that shows how millions could be excluded by an immigration reform proposal, based on past Congressional reform blueprints. They predict that half of all undocumented families might be unable to afford the penalty (which they estimate could cost up to $10,000); 40,000 gay and lesbian couples might be deemed ineligible under the Defense of Marriage Act; and, if the Obama administration deports as many people as they did last year, 400,000 immigrants will be deported in 2013 before they can even apply for a green card.

While much of this is speculation  the exact number of people who will be left behind by a proposal is unknown  it’s clear that Congress will not make it easy for undocumented immigrants to attain legal status.

Cost is a serious concern. I’m not sure exactly how Colorlines calculated the $10,000 number, but it’s true that past immigration proposals would have required immigrants to pay fines up to $4,000, and attorney fees could easily cost thousands of more dollars. For low-income people living in poverty, this simply might not be feasible. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, a fifth of undocumented adult immigrants are living in poverty; in 2007, the median household income for undocumented families was $36,000.

Moreover, if deportations continue at the current rate, hundreds of thousands of people could be deported before a reform bill passes. Cries for more enforcement from ostensibly pro-immigrants Republicans like Marco Rubio, who says that he will only support the passage of a bill with strong enforcement measures, only underscores this anxiety.

Last year, 409,849 people were deported; and only about half of those deported were convicted of crimes. While Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bragged about deporting "criminals," 63% of these so-called “criminals” were convicted of immigration violations and minor crimes, like traffic violations. In late December, ICE announced that it would be shifting its focus away from people convicted of these low-level crimes, and towards more "serious offenders." But immigrant advocates remain wary. A few days ago, USA Today reported on a series of disturbing internal ICE emails from last year that urged immigration agents to round up immigrants convicted of minor crimes, in order to meet "annual performance goals."

On a more positive note, it seems likely that gay immigrants will benefit from immigration reform in the not-so-distant future. A White House press release published after President Obama’s January 29th speech in Nevada on immigration reform said that his plan "treats same-sex families as families," by enabling gay Americans and green card holders to petition for visas for their long-term partners. The Supreme Court will also review the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) this year, which dictates immigration policies for gay couples. Political momentum for gay rights is strong: it seems probable that the court will strike down DOMA, and with it, the double standard for gay immigrants and their American partners.

However, even  immigrants who may be eligible to apply for a pathway to citizenship  gay or straight  might have to stay in the shadows for years before they receive their green cards. Obama’s leaked draft legislation for immigration reform proposed an eight-year wait for immigrants seeking to apply for a green card. (Green card holders can usually apply for citizenship after five years.) But wait times could be much longer than eight years. Currently, many Mexican immigrants have to wait 16 years for their green cards after they are approved, according to the New York Times

The increased attention on immigration reform is cause for optimism, but let’s hope that a reform bill does not pass over the majority of undocumented immigrants.