Guest Voz: “Path to Citizenship” — as if the long wait isn’t punishment enough

By Eduardo Stanley
LatinaLista

Farm workers harvesting oranges in Fresno county, California (Photo by Eduardo Stanley)

Farm workers harvesting oranges
in Fresno county, California
(Photo by Eduardo Stanley)

FRESNO, California — Congressional representatives in charge of putting together an immigration reform bill are considering a so-called “path to citizenship,” the process by which undocumented immigrants living in the country may become legal residents and later citizens. But this path will include a long wait for those who qualify.

After the November 2012 electoral defeat, Republicans changed their stance on immigration reform, hoping that it will translate to some level of acceptance — and votes — from Latinos. With this change, and with the White House on the offensive, a reform is a real possibility. At this point the question is, why will there be a wait and how long it will be?

To answer this question let’s first clarify that legally immigrating to the USA isn’t easy.

Don Riding, former director US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in the Fresno area, explained how a person can do it: (1) marry an American, (2) have a needed job skill (e.g., engineering, medicine — farming is not included), (3) be a close relative of someone who has immigrated, (4) come as a refugee, or (5) win the green card lottery. Each of these ways represents a different bureaucratic process, with a different amount of time on a waiting list.

While direct family members of US citizens (spouses, parents, and children) wait a short period of time, others have to wait a very long time to receive the “green card.”

According to Riding, “No country can use more than 7% of the preference category visas. As a result, India and China have longer waits for employment visas. Mexico and the Philippines dominate in the family preference categories.”

This means that currently the longest waiting time for employment visas is 10 years for skilled workers from India, while the longest waiting time in the family preference system is 23 years for brothers or sisters from the Philippines.

President Obama has said the future “path to citizenship” will mean going to the back of the waiting line. One wonders which line he is talking about: the 10 years or the 23 years?

There is a huge contradiction between the number of people allowed to immigrate legally and the powerful demand for labor in the USA. Because of this unresolved conflict, hundreds of thousands of people come and stay without proper residence documentation. They are “illegals.”

The US economy benefits to a great degree from this labor and, in some areas like agriculture, it’s essential. The agriculture lobby is pushing for an immigration reform that allows for the easy influx of workers, mainly from Mexico, to guarantee the cheap labor it relies on. This means providing legal entrance for these workers — with many strings attached.

This is an indication that laws should be modified according to social, political, and economic needs. To keep millions under the status of illegality is, pure and simple, political and economical abuse.

It is political abuse because the name “illegal,” based on the technicality of being without proper documentation, allows the US society to single out a certain class of people and justify having them marginalized.

It is economical abuse because, while most of them work, they can’t receive basic benefits such as unemployment — which they pay for. Undocumented workers can’t even collect Social Security despite paying for it for years!

And, of course, such a status obligates these workers to work under the pressure of being deported if they complain about low salaries or bad working conditions or, even worse, if they want to get organized.

Keeping millions of workers as “illegals” is beneficial for the US economy. However, new social conditions and pressure from above — remember the immigrants’ marches of 2006 and 2007 and the de facto Latino-Obama alliance — make immigration reform a must.

But in a society obsessed with guilt and punishment, the bill in process will surely include a long wait and penalties as punishment for being “illegal,” without consideration or self-criticism of why such status was created.

This should be a great and unique opportunity for Congress and the White House to overhaul the current immigration law, making it clear and dynamic, for those already here without immigration documents and for future immigrant workers who will continue coming — responding to the call of an economy that needs them badly.

Clear and dynamic means recognizing workers’ rights and benefits. As they work and pay taxes, they are entitled to receive Social Security and other benefits they pay for.

Eduardo Stanley is a California-based bilingual journalist specializing in commentaries, news and photojournalism. His work can be found at EduardoStanley.com.

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