February 2013 Archives

A theme emerging from immigrant rights advocacy groups as immigration reform legislation is being drafted this year is that any acceptable bill should "leave no one behind." Groups like presente.org and United We Dream are pushing for legalization for all of the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. Politicians have promoted comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) as a once-and-for-all solution to the problem of unauthorized migration in the U.S.

President Obama and a bipartisan Senate working group have each proposed a blueprint for reform. The proposed legalization would require undocumented people to register with the government, pass background checks, learn English, pay a fine, and go to the end of the line. By legalizing undocumented people, sealing the border, implementing measures to make sure visa holders leave the U.S. when they are supposed to, and better facilitating future immigration flows, CIR is supposed to do what the 1986 amnesty failed to accomplish: permanently solve the problem of unauthorized migration.

Some issues are still being discussed, such as whether legalization will create a path to eventual citizenship or instead create a long-term limbo status. But despite these divergent positions, a bipartisan consensus is forming around legalization for most of the 11 million. Unfortunately, a significant percentage of undocumented people are unlikely to benefit from legalization as it has been proposed.

Colorlines recently put up an infographic that elucidates this point. None of the current CIR proposals would fundamentally change the immigration system. Beneficiaries of reform will still be subject to most of the laws and regulations that now exist, the same legal regime that pushed 11 million people into the shadows. The reasons that millions would be excluded from legalization include:

  • Unreasonable fees and fines - A friend recently estimated that combined fees and fines will be around $2,000 per person, which seems about right to me. The closest recent parallel was a mini-legalization program ("245(i)") that required fees and fines to the government of just over $2,000 per person. Lawyers' fees could be that much or more. A family of four living on a subsistence income could be looking at $15,000 to $20,000 to legalize. Prohibitive cost could make legalization unattainable for millions of people.

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