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U.S. Immigration Reform Denies Justice
Examining new proposals and current procedures
Darin Foster (dfoster)     Print Article 
Published 2007-04-17 14:39 (KST)   
On April 9, U.S. President George Bush made a trip to Yuma, Arizona to begin a renewed push for what the president called "comprehensive immigration reform." Standing along the U.S.-Mexico border, President Bush outlined a proposal that appeared to allow undocumented workers currently in the United States to legalize their work status and to eventually gain legal residency. Understanding that with the Democrats now in control of Congress, any immigration reform plan would have to find support from both the Left and the Right, the president argued that his proposal struck a middle ground "between granting automatic citizenship to every illegal immigrant and deporting every illegal immigrant."

On closer examination, though, the Bush proposal does not strike any sort of balance. Rather, the plan is little more than the usual pro-business, anti-immigrant message packaged with a slightly different political spin. During his presentation at Yuma, the president spoke words of compromise and understanding, going as far as admitting that deporting all undocumented immigrants from the United States is impractical and simply "won't happen." At the same time, the president categorically rejected the possibility of an amnesty, which remains the simplest solution to the so-called immigration problem.

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Bush's Latest Immigration Proposal

The new Bush plan contains three major proposals. First, in the name of national security, the plan calls for further increases in personnel and funding for the Border Patrol. This proposal comes despite the fact that the Border Patrol is already the largest, most expensive police force in the United States. Increased funding also seems to be at odds with the president's own statements that illegal border crossings are down by 30 percent since 2005.

Second, undocumented workers could apply for a newly created "Z" visa. This three-year visa would cost $3,500 and would be renewable indefinitely. While the Z visa would appear to be a step in the right direction, it creates a number of problems. At the most basic level, the cost is highly prohibitive. For a minimum wage worker, the application fee would equal approximately 12 weeks of pre-tax salary. In addition, given that over 10 million people would theoretically qualify for these new visas, delays in processing could stretch into months or even years.

Finally, the visas would not allow any family members to join the worker, nor would the visa allow for the worker to change status, for instance, by marrying a U.S. citizen. The conservative emphasis on family values apparently does not extend to immigrants. Even viewed generously, the best outcome of the Z visa would be the creation of a permanent underclass of low-paid, politically voiceless serfs to fill the needs of targeted industries.

The final element of the Bush reform plan is a "path to legal residency," but that path is little more than an illusion. Under the proposal, in order to gain permanent residency status, undocumented workers would have to first return to their home country and apply for U.S. residency at a consulate or embassy. The applicant would need to demonstrate that he paid all taxes during his time in the United States and that he learned English, among other requirements. The application would also need to be accompanied by the payment of a $10,000 fine. Once these criteria were met, the applicant would then get in line behind all other applicants for permanent residency. Given the current backlog of applicants, and the limited number of permanent residency "green cards" given out every year, even if there were no complications, the applicant could still wait for years or even decades before he could legally return to the United States.

In its current form, the Bush proposal would do nothing to alleviate the immigration problem. Even if they wanted to, most undocumented immigrants would not be able to afford the fees and penalties associated with the program, meet the strict requirements of the program, such as providing proof that they had paid all taxes in the United States, or endure the predictable delays. The only real outcome of the program would be an increased criminalization of undocumented immigrants.

Administering the Border

All of these criticisms and concerns are highlighted by the manner in which the Bush administration is currently handling immigration processing along the border. Much like the new reform proposal, current immigration procedure does little more than provide the illusion of fairness and justice, while simultaneously striving to trap as many immigrants as possible, even those who have every right to reside in the United States. Consider the situation facing immigrants who wish to take advantage of the 2001 amnesty program.

In 2001, the federal government passed a limited amnesty program for all undocumented immigrants then residing in the United States who met certain strict criteria. Because of bureaucratic backlog within the immigration system, many amnesty claims are only now being filed.

Normally, the amnesty application procedure is simple. When an immigrant's registration number comes-up, which in itself can take years, particularly for Mexican nationals, the immigrant completes the required paperwork and mails it to a designated process center. When the amnesty application is received at the center, a proof of filing receipt is sent to the immigrant. That receipt becomes the immigrant's only proof of legal status in the United States. While the amnesty application is pending, the immigrant is legally allowed to remain in the the country. Eventually, the immigrant will be required to come to an interview at the processing center, and, assuming all the requirements for the amnesty are met, the immigrant will become a legal permanent resident.

In an attempt to "improve" on this system, the federal government is using its administrative authority to bureaucratically deny justice to immigrants. At certain designated processing centers, such as the one directly on the border in El Paso, Texas, authorities no longer accept mailed applications. Instead immigrants who fall into the jurisdiction of this center are now required to file their applications in person.

This simple procedural change has profound practical consequences. First, the immigrant is not allowed to simply show-up at the processing center. Instead, they must make an appointment. This requires the immigrant to have access to the Internet, be capable of navigating (in English) to the appropriate section of the appropriate government Web site, and schedule the appointment. Because of backlog and underfunding, appointment times are filled months in advance. While the immigrant waits patiently for his scheduled appointment, he is constantly at risk of being picked-up in one of the increasingly common immigration "sweeps" conducted by immigration officials and law enforcement agencies in Texas and New Mexico.

Once the appointment date arrives, the immigrant is faced with another problem: how to get to the appointment and back safely. The Border Patrol has erected permanent, fixed check-points along every road leading away from the processing center in El Paso.

Immigrants attempting to comply with the administrative procedures come to the center and file their applications. Here they learn for the first time that they will not be receiving the usual proof of filing receipt. The receipt will be mailed to them only after an official reviews the application.

At this point the application is filed, and the immigrant has a legal right to remain in the United States pending approval of the application, but she has no proof of that right. As the immigrant leaves El Paso, she will inevitably be detained and interviewed at one of the check-points. Even if the Border Patrol officer listens to the immigrant's amnesty claim, he has no way of verifying the story, because no central database records all claims that have been filed. Should the officer take extraordinary step of calling-in for verification, the processing center will not verify status by phone.

Having an immigration attorney in the vehicle to explain the situation to the officer is of little help, because the accompanying attorney can easily be arrested and charged with attempting to smuggle an alien into the country. Unconfirmed reports from New Mexico immigration attorneys indicate that this has already happened on at least one occasion.

The inevitable outcome of the Bush administration's new procedure is to insure the arrest and possible deportation from the country of individuals who have struggled to comply with the law and who have every legal right to remain in the United States. This is, of course, precisely the outcome the administration desires. The immigrant is arrested, detained, processed, humiliated, shipped across the country, separated from access to legal counsel, and possibly coerced into "voluntarily" leaving the country.

While theoretically the immigrant will eventually appear before an immigration judge, who is empowered to approve an amnesty application, the immigrant's life is permanently impacted, and the costs to both the immigrant and the administrative system have dramatically increased.

The common thread running through both current procedural immigration reality and proposed immigration reform is the elevation of form over substance. In both these areas, and arguably in many others, the administration strives to put forth the appearance of justice without having to actually provide justice.

If the U.S. economy requires low-wage workers, then the administration should develop a proposal that meets that need while still respecting the financial constraints and human dignity of the immigrants. If providing a path to legal residency and possible citizenship is in the country's best interest, then this path must be simple and easy to follow. If the substantive law grants an immigrant, or any other human being, a particular right, then procedure and bureaucracy should not be used to deny that right.

Providing the illusion of justice, while using procedure and bureaucracy to deny justice, undermines the fundamental principles of the rule of law, and invites scorn for an administration, and a president, already hitting record lows in terms of public opinion and international approval.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Darin Foster

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