Members of US Congress and the president are working toward giving illegal immigrants a legal future. For Democrats and Republicans, the prize is a huge Latino constituency. But will 'illegals' really become Americans?
"We believe that 2013 will finally be the year of immigration reform," said Julian Teixeira, spokesperson for the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest human rights organization for Latinos in the United States. Independently, the president and a bipartisan group of senators have sent proposals that address how immigration rights can be reformed. They also deal with the question of how to make legal citizens out of millions of illegal immigrants. The NCLR is "excited and happy" about these steps forward, Teixeira said.
Approximately 11 million illegal immigrants live in the United States. Eight million of them are estimated to be Latinos. Most of them, Teixeira said, have lived in the US for more than 10 years. They work and many pay taxes to the US government, yet they also they live in constant fear of attracting attention and being deported. That's why it's important for the NCLR that any reform of immigration law simultaneously provide a clear path to citizenship.
"You can't turn 11 million people into second-class people," Teixeira said.
A Republican rethink
In the past, Republicans have been reluctant to grant amnesty to a group of people many collectively refer to as "illegals." As a result, reform efforts have stagnated for years.
Yet in the latest presidential elections Latinos demonstrated the true extent of their political clout. They now represent 10 percent of all US voters. They also delivered 71 percent of their votes to President Barack Obama and were the difference in key swing-states.
Their influence will only become larger, said Teixeira in an interview with DW. "In the next 20 years there will be 890,000 US-born Latinos, meaning US citizens, who will reach 18 years of age. That's 890,000 potential voters."
It's a political force that even Republicans cannot afford to ignore - a fact that conservative politicians in both chambers of Congress have recognized. Yet the devil, of course, is in the details, which is why both the NCLR and Human Rights Watch, another NGO, are keeping an eye on proposals' fine print.
"How long will the planned temporary status of these still-illegal immigrants last before they get citizenship?" asked Antonio Ginatta at Human Rights Watch. "Ten years? Twenty years? Or indefinitely, because the hurdles are too high?"
The senators' proposals envision that any visa applications made by "illegals" be given secondary status to those applications conducted in a fully legal manner from start to finish Yet even standard visa applications can sometimes take up to 25 years in certain cases, Ginatta said.
The border contingency
The NCLR also requests that, during periods of transition from "illegal" to "legal," immigrants have access to social welfare benefits. In addition, homosexual partnerships should be put on par with heterosexual partnerships - a condition Obama envisioned in his proposal, but which the senators did not.
Another point of critique has to do with borders. According to senators' proposals, "illegals" should only first receive legal status when a yet-to-be-established commission declares that the US borders - and in particular the portion shared with southern neighbor Mexico - are fully secure. That could take time. Questions have been raised as to why the fate of those already in the United States should be dependent upon a border they have already crossed.
The "secure border" clause is predicated upon a longstanding assumption that Mexicans, above all other foreign nationally, would surge into the United States if allowed. The evidence, however, says otherwise.
"Immigration from Mexico has more or less come to a standstill," said economics professor Jacob Vigdor at Duke University. Those who focus solely on Mexico, he said, blind themselves to the real problem: the US needs immigrants at both ends of the educational spectrum. Farmhands are in as much demand as high tech experts, he added, which leads to another immigration reform question.
"If you come here as an immigrant and study in the US and get a degree, then you don't get residency visa as part of that," Vigdor told DW. In other countries that's different, he said, and any immigration reform should address that issue.
Both NCLR and Human Rights Watch point out that the immigration discussion has really just begun. On Friday (01.02.2013) Human Rights Watch presented its own policy paper on the topic.
In the coming weeks the House Judiciary Committee will begin working on immigration reform. Their task is to prepare a legal document from the proposals at hand. That could happen quickly, with approval from Congress following as early as spring.
Teixeira said after all these years, time really isn't the problem.
"It'll all pay off if we have just a little bit more patience," he said.