WALLA WALLA — The U.S. Senate’s passage Thursday of a comprehensive immigration reform bill prompted joy from local immigrant groups, even amidst broader concerns about the bill’s specific provisions.
OneAmerica, the largest immigrant rights group in Washington state, said in a news release the organization applauded the bill’s passage, and it would continue to work to ensure final legislation contains a path to citizenship that is feasible for Washington families.
Still, doubts remain about the requirements needed to earn legal status and eventual citizenship. While some Republicans in Congress have indicated they won’t support an immigration bill with amnesty provisions, local groups are concerned the path to legal status has too many roadblocks to be viable for many immigrants.
The Senate bill provides three paths to legal citizenship. Under the general track, individuals would first apply to become “registered provisional immigrants,” a temporary, six-year status that can be renewed once. After 10 years as registered provisional immigrants, they would be eligible for a green card. Three years after that they would be eligible for citizenship.
There is a faster track with fewer requirements for young people brought to the U.S. before age 16 who have completed high school and either some college or military service. Agricultural workers also have their own track.
It’s the smaller details of the path to citizenship that are causing concern.
First, no one can apply for legal status until border security provisions in the bill are met. These provisions helped ensure bipartisan support for the bill in the Senate, but OneAmerica Executive Director Rich Stolz said they unfairly penalizes immigrants if bureaucratic problems cause delays in implementing security measures.
Applying for provisional legal status requires an immigrant to pay a $500 penalty, plus any assessed back taxes, plus processing fees that will be set by the Department of Homeland Security.
Reapplying after six years requires an additional fee, and also contains a requirement that immigrants can’t have spent more than 60 consecutive days unemployed.
To eventually earn a green card, immigrants must have income equal to 125 percent of the federal poverty line, about $14,362 for an individual. They must also know English and civics, or be studying them.
“Taken on the face value, the process has the possibility of excluding lots of people,” said Stolz, though he added that the language of the bill allows the officials administering the program to be more flexible in individual cases.
Because many immigrants work low-wage jobs, which are sometimes temporary or seasonal, maintaining employment and required income levels could prove challenging for some.
Lupe, who declined to give her last name because of her legal status, lives in the Farm Labor Homes outside of College Place and said she would like to see immigration reform, but didn’t think she would be eligible. At age 74, she said learning English would be too difficult for her, because she can barely read and write in her native Spanish.
Like many in the area, her work is seasonal. Last year, she ended up finding work for only 1 1/2 months, earning just above minimum wage working in a cannery.
“The little bit we earn has to last all year,” she said.
Many immigrants without legal status are in a similar financial situation. Stolz said he was concerned about their ability to pay fees or meet income requirements.
He also said OneAmerica would keep an eye on the bill, which is likely to become tougher on immigrants before it will be able to pass the Republican-dominated House.
House Speaker John Boehner has said the House won’t consider the Senate bill, but will pursue its own effort that prioritizes border security.
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said she saw the need for a reform bill to address farm labor shortages in Eastern Washington. Her focus was on repairing the guest worker program, which she said provides only about 20 percent of needed labor.
“The current guest worker program is cost-prohibitive,” she said, citing wage regulations and requirements that employers pay for the cost of employee transportation. “Small farmers don’t even try to find employees through that program.”
Stolz said OneAmerica is focused on ensuring that any final immigration bill has requirements which are feasible for immigrants to meet. Otherwise, the bill risks creating a class of immigrants who earn temporary registered provisional immigrant status but can’t qualify for a green card, meaning they would eventually slip back into being here illegally.
“There’s a point in the legislative process where trying to be tough on immigrants makes the process not workable. We’re almost there,” he said.