By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — An immigration reform bill worked out among Senate and White House negotiators would give the vast majority of the nation’s illegal immigrants a chance to legalize their status, but also would completely restructure the system for legal immigration.
The negotiated bill announced by a bipartisan group of senators May 17 and quickly endorsed by President George W. Bush includes some unexpectedly generous provisions as well as elements that backers of a comprehensive reform approach said might be unworkable.
Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said May 18 that the “imperfect bill” was a workable starting point, but that the church would be pushing for amendments on the floor to fix what he considers problems with its provisions for temporary workers and family immigration, among others.
The Senate was to begin debate on the bill late May 21. As of May 18 it was unclear whether a vote for passage would be held before the congressional break for Memorial Day or if debate might continue into June for a two-week debate period as originally planned by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
The bill’s legalization program would be open to those in the country illegally who can prove they were here before Jan. 1, 2007. This could affect potentially millions of people, based upon estimates of at least 12 million in the U.S. without proper documents. People with criminal records for anything other than being in the country illegally would be excluded.
As proposed, a new Z visa would be created under which illegal immigrants could immediately upon opening of the program be granted legal status — after background checks — that allows them to stay and work legally. The Z visa would be valid for four years, with a four-year renewal, and would require payment of fines totaling $5,000.
Between eight and 13 years into the program, Z-visa holders would be eligible to apply for permanent legal residency, known as a green card. The administration estimates that after eight years the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the immigration agency, would be able to clear a backlog of applications for legal immigration, then open the system to the Z-visa holders.
Appleby said a prime concern for the church is that the process for Z visas be fair and workable.
“People are going to come to the Catholic Church to shepherd them through this,” he said in a May 18 teleconference sponsored by the National Immigration Forum.
He questioned a requirement for Z-visa holders to return home and file for permanent residency at a U.S. consulate abroad, saying it might be onerous for poor people or those who came from remote countries. Another objection is that Z-visa holders would not be able to bring their family members to live with them until at least eight years into the program.
Appleby said people also will want assurances that if they do return home to follow the process they’ll be allowed to re-enter the United States.
Amendments will be sought to the bill’s temporary worker program, which would allow workers to stay in the United States for two years and then require that they leave for a year before re-entering for another two years, repeating the process for a maximum of six years of working in the United States. As proposed, temporary workers would not be allowed to bring family members with them unless they can prove they have health insurance and income of at least 150 percent of the poverty level.
Appleby said as written the temporary worker program potentially will create “a permanent underclass” of workers who are not entitled to the societal benefits others enjoy. He also said a restructuring of the legal immigration program to one based on points given for education, job experience and other background elements is “a historic move away from family-based immigration.”
The proposal also would eliminate visa categories for adult children of citizens or legal residents, and married children or siblings of U.S. citizens.
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who was among the negotiators for the administration, told Catholic News Service in a May 18 phone interview that currently 62 percent of green cards go to family members of current citizens or legal residents. As the backlog — which is as long as 20 years for some categories — is cleared, that percentage will go up temporarily before leveling off. He said then half of immigrant visas would be for nuclear family reunification — spouses and minor children.
Gutierrez also defended the temporary worker program, saying participants could simultaneously hold temporary visas and be applying for permanent green cards, and that their experience and time in the United States would count toward their eligibility.
And while Z-visa holders would not be eligible to bring their families with them, family members would be eligible for visitor visas and the Z-visa holders would be free to return home at will to visit, Gutierrez said.