Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

New Yorkers and the Immigration Bills

Linda Teoh has been waiting for a chance to visit her homeland for years. After landing at Kennedy Airport in Queens 10 years ago, she has missed all the family get-togethers, including her brother's wedding, the birth of her nieces, and her father's funeral. She knows that if she leaves the U.S., she will not be able to return for a long time because she has overstayed her visa.

A native of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Teoh is one of an estimated 400,000 immigrants in New York City who have a home that they cannot go back to. A hard worker who is fluent in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese, Teoh has worked her way up from a waitress to become an assistant manager in an upscale restaurant in Manhattan. "The money is good in the restaurant business, but I miss my family so much."

Teoh's waiting might come to an end soon. The new immigration bill, which proposes to allow undocumented immigrants to gain legal status if they meet the requirements, may be her last hope. "If this new bill doesn't work out, I am going to get a paper marriage," she said.

While Teoh thinks the immigration bill could help her, many immigrant advocacy groups object to current versions of the measure. "The present immigration proposal is not acceptable on many fronts," said Sonia Ivany, president of the NY Chapter of the Labor Council on Latin American Advancement has said. "Labor unions and immigrant workers cannot accept a system that's founded on inequality and will create a large temporary workforce devoid of worker rights."

And John Delgado, business manager of union local 79, which represents construction and general building laborers, called the bill "a slap in the face of all the immigrants who have sacrificed their lives to build what we have today."

Immigration reform is being hotly debated on Capitol Hill. After long negotiations, the Senate passed its version, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on May 25. The Senate version proposes to strengthen border security, establish a guest-worker program and provide the means for millions of illegal immigrants to stay in the country and possibly become citizens. It also calls for 370 miles of triple-layer fencing along the Mexican border and making English the country's national language.

"This is the most far-reaching immigration reform in our history," Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, a co-sponsor of the Senate version, told the Washington Post. "It is a comprehensive and realistic attempt to solve the real-world problems that have festered for too long in our broken immigration system."

Meanwhile, the House version, sponsored by Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and Jeff Flake of Arizona, is entitled the STRIVE Act of 2007 (Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act). It also proposes to tighten border control and security check and favors skilled-immigrant workers over family-based immigration.

Under immigration proposals, an illegal immigrant who entered the U.S. before January 1, 2007 could receive a four-year, renewable Z visa and gain probationary legal status after paying $5,000 in fines and fees. Z visa holders will be able to apply for green cards after a series of security and background checks. They will also have to wait in the back of the line after all existing applicants, a wait that could take is eight to 13 years.

President George W. Bush has endorsed comprehensive immigration reform. "This is a good piece of legislation," he said in a briefing on comprehensive immigration reform on June 1. "This bill is one that says, we recognize that you're here illegally and there's a consequence for it. We can argue about the consequences, but you can't argue about the fact that there are consequences in this bill for people who have broken our law."

''No matter how difficult it may seem for some politically, I strongly believe it's in this nation's interest for people here in Washington to show courage and resolve and pass a comprehensive immigration reform,'' added the president.

But a number of aspects of the bill remain controversial. In the center of the debate is the bill's proposed merit-based "points system." It would evaluate applicants for permanent residency on a point system that would give high priorities to education and employment, while not putting as much emphasis on family ties as the current system does. An applicant would need a minimum of 55 to 100 points to be considered for permanent residency. A graduate degree would count for 20 points, while a specialty or high-demand occupation would count counts for 16 to 20 points. An immigrant would receive only eight points for having an adult son or daughter who is a U.S. citizen.

At a recent rally on the steps of New York's City Hall, advocacy groups for immigrants expressed opposition to the point system. "If this bill is passed in its current form, it will divide our families, hurt our communities, and weaken our nation," said Moises Perez, president of Alianza Dominicana. "We cannot support a bill that turns its back on family reunification, worker's rights and provides an unfair and unworkable legalization process for our immigrants."

"The proposed bargain… undermines our family-based immigration system," said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, in a statement.

The reduced emphasis on family would have a particular impact on New York, some experts say. "Mom and pop stores in New York have been a very dynamic force in the making of American society, and I would not want to see that possibility foreclosed," Gary Gerstle, a historian of immigration, told the Times.

A system geared more to skilled labor could create problems for New York City, according to David Reimers, an emeritus immigration historian at N.Y.U. "Like all big cities, it depends on unskilled labor," he said.

Another controversial provision in the bill is the guest worker program. The proposed new Y visa will allow as many as 400,000 guest workers to work in the U.S. for two years. The visa is renewable for up to three times but workers have to go home for a year between each time.

Chung-Wha Hong said the guest worker program would hurt immigrants and other Americans as well. In a statement issued after the Senate bill was introduced, she said it "promotes exploitation of low-wage workers in a permanent underclass and drives down wages and working condition for all American workers."

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also objects to the guest worker plan, largely because of the requirement that workers leave after two years. Calling the proposal a "joke," he told the New York Times. "Nobody could ever enforce that. Nobody in their right mind would ever do it." However, he supported the provisions in the new bill that allow undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status.

While Bloomberg praised the bill for rejecting mass deportations of immigrants who are here illegally, he expressed reservations about the overall proposal. Many members of Congress who support it, he said, should "look back on their history and realize that if we had had the laws that they are proposing in many cases, they wouldn't be here because their parents or grandparents would not have been here."

On the other hand, according to a poll by CBS and the New York Times released on May 25, the new immigration reform proposal is gaining support among Americans. More than half of those polled said priorities should be given to immigrants with education, job skills and work experience. About two thirds of those polled said illegal immigrants should get a renewable visa if they pay a fine, have a clean record and pass a background check. A majority of 62 percent said illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for at least two years should be allowed to apply for legal status.

The House and Senate will try to hammer out their differences and agree on a bill later this month.


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