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2004: Shorter Lines, Just As Much Frustration

by Chaleampon Ritthichai, Dec 23, 2004
 Many immigrants will look back at 2004 as the year when the long lines in front of the immigration office disappeared. That is because appointments can now be made online.

But when the year began, immigrants and their advocates had far higher hopes than just shorter lines. Many thought that there would be an amnesty for undocumented immigrants similar to the one created by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. That did not happen. Here is what did:

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Bush’s Guest Worker Program

President George W. Bush unveiled in February his guest worker program that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a three-year work permit if they were sponsored by their employers. They would enjoy other rights as well, such as a guaranteed minimum wage and union benefits.

But immigrant advocates only half-heartedly supported the program. They argued that while the proposal benefits low-skilled workers who are unable to get a work permit through regular channels, it does not offer a path to permanent residency (getting the “green card”) or to citizenship, without which the guest workers will have to leave the country eventually.

”Under the guise of immigration reform, the president has proposed a temporary worker program which does not lead to permanent residency and citizenship and essentially says to the immigrant community ‘work hard, pay taxes, and then get lost,’” said Margie McHugh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.

Ironically, the program also failed to gain support in Congress, because many representatives viewed it as too lenient – a kind of amnesty for undocumented immigrants. The issue faded as the campaign season heated up. Less than three weeks after his re-election, President Bush said he was committed to the program and will "find supporters on the Hill and move it."

Drivers License

The New York Department of Motors Vehicles began crosschecking drivers’ social security numbers with information at the Social Security Administration. In March the agency sent out letters to 112,000 New Yorkers asking them to come in and explain why their social security numbers did not match. Anybody who does not report within 15 days of receiving such a letter risks having his license suspended.

Many believe the new policy is another crackdown on undocumented immigrants, many of whom use fake social security numbers to apply for driver licenses, according to New York Immigration Coalition.

The Department of Motors Vehicles estimated that 300,000 immigrants are likely to lose their licenses. Immigrant rights advocates fear that some immigrants will go on driving without a license or insurance.

"I need my van to bring food here every day,” a Honduran immigrant who has a mobile lunch station in Corona, Queens told Akhon Samoy, a Bengali newspaper. “I have no choice but to drive. This is my living. I don’t care if I have an ID or not.”

Facing the prospect that many immigrants will go on driving without a driver license, the Department of Motors Vehicles in September said it will review a proposal for a limited "One -Year Immigrant Driver Permit" that could allow hundreds of thousands of drivers now facing license suspension to stay on the road legally.

Regulating Immigration Consultants

Governor George Pataki signed in September a new law that would regulate immigration-consulting businesses.

Under the new law, immigration service providers can transcribe responses to government agencies; translate instructions and questions from forms, assist in getting documentation. However, they are prohibited from giving legal advice to clients.

But there is sharp disagreement over the role of immigrant assistance service providers, some questioning whether the new laws won't legitimize an occupation that shouldn't really exist at all.

According to a federal law, only attorneys and accredited individuals or non-profit organizations can represent immigrants.

Proponents of the bills argue that regulating, instead of outlawing, immigration service providers, allows some room for legitimate businesses to exist. But lawyers said it is difficult for immigrant assistance service providers to avoid giving legal advice. They are considering constitutional challenges on the ground that these bills go against federal law.

INFOPASS

Following Miami, Dallas and Los Angeles, the immigration agency in New York City implemented Infopass in late July to help curb the waiting line for walk-in cases.

Infopass is an online appointment system that will allow immigrants to make an appointment without going to Federal Plaza themselves.

Because the agency can only take up to about 150 walk-in cases a day, people started to line up earlier and earlier, and the line got longer and longer. According to the agency, 1,400 people visit the New York office on a daily basis.

Within weeks of its implementation, the long line in front of the building disappeared. But critics said Infopass will only change the way people have to wait.

”Instead of waiting three or four hours outside to be told that their case is pending,” said Dan Smulian of the New York Immigration Coalition, “now they will get an appointment online and go in to the building to be told that their case is still pending.”

An immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand, Chaleampon Ritthichai is the editor of The Citizen. 


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