The bipartisan group of eight senators introduced its plan for comprehensive immigration reform early Wednesday morning after months of talks and deliberation. While the legislation is not ideal and will likely prompt further debate in the coming months, United Church of Christ immigration advocates say it is a positive step toward fixing the country's broken immigration system and creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
"My initial reaction is gladness that a bill has been introduced – this legislation may actually happen," said the Rev. Mari Castellanos, UCC advocate for domestic issues. "This may not be the bill we would have written, but it is a bill to fight for. It will establish a roadmap to citizenship for 11 million new Americans."
Many aspects of the legislation are contingent upon increased border security measures. The plan dedicates billions to security efforts, including $3 billion to more border agents, customs agents and surveillance systems along the border, and $1.5 billion to border fencing. Conservatives say border security improvements should be verified before undocumented immigrants can seek citizenship, but immigrant rights advocates say their pathway should not be held up by that process.
"As I look at the border security provisions, I can't help but wonder if any of these folks have been at the border lately," said Castellanos. "Except in the most inaccessible mountains, or remote desert areas where no human being can survive, border patrol is equipped to intercept any poor soul attempting to cross."
The pathway to citizenship in this bill would take a minimum of 13 years and is contingent upon the enactment of many of the border security measures. Once the measures are in place, undocumented immigrants can enter a provisional status that would last for 10 years, after which they could seek green cards for permanent legal status. After another three years, those immigrants could petition for citizenship. Only undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States before Dec. 31, 2011, with no felony convictions in U.S. or foreign courts would be eligible for legal residency.
The process would cost each immigrant about $2,000 in fines, plus additional taxes.
"There are fees and taxes that will be difficult to meet for many persons, particularly those making minimum wages," Castellanos notes.
DREAMERS, or undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as youth, would have a five-year path to citizenship, and farmworkers would have a five-year path to permanent residence, which Castellanos said is encouraging. However, the legislation excludes any protections for LGBT persons or families, a fact the UCC Immigration Collaborative strongly opposes.
"As I see it, the job of the UCC may be to push for LGBT families," said Castellanos. "Everyone else will be pushing for the rest of the bill."
Among other measures, the legislation also calls for reforms to the legal immigration system, creating new immigration opportunities for tens of thousands of high- and low-skilled workers, as well as a new program aimed at bringing people with extraordinary talents in fields like science, the arts, education, business or athletics to the U.S.
The UCC has a long history of affirming the dignity of immigrants and working for comprehensive U.S. immigration policy. Since 1995, General Synod – the main deliberative body of the UCC – has repeatedly called for a fair and human approach to U.S. immigration policy that protects families and respects the humanity of our immigrant brothers and sisters.