Comprehensive immigration reform it is not: That's what many are saying about the Obama administration's recently announced plan to ease restrictions on illegal immigrants trying to re-enter the U.S. after applying for legal status.
Current law mandates that illegal immigrants applying for legal status must return to their home country to do so. Once there, they are barred from re-entering the United States for either three or 10 years, depending on the length of their unauthorized stay.
But immigrants can apply for a waiver that allows them re-entry during the process if they can prove that their separation is causing extreme hardship for spouses or parents who are U.S. citizens. The new proposal would allow the applicant to apply for the waiver before leaving the country; if granted, the applicant could return to the U.S. during the visa application process.
The Obama administration says the move is a step toward significantly reducing the time that thousands of immigrant families are separated. But there’s an underlying cautionary tale from stakeholders who think the proposal should not be oversold as a major step.
Jacqueline Watson, an Austin-based immigration lawyer, said that the announcement was not “a big deal” and that there are still unanswered questions. The government has reiterated the proposal is indeed a significant step,
The process by which the rule change will be made final is long and fluid. The plan, which doesn't require Congressional approval, isn’t expected to go into effect until the end of the year. But Watson already sees the possibility for unintended consequences.
“Can you imagine the pain if you don’t win your waiver? Then you’re not going to leave the country to go get your visa. You’re stuck here in limbo forever, or at least until you get another waiver package together,” Watson said.
During a conference call with stakeholders and news outlets Tuesday – the first in a series of opportunities for the public to comment on the proposal – officials from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services did not say what the outcome would be for an immigrant whose application was rejected. But Watson posits that some would-be applicants already fear the worst.
“When you get a waiver denied, does that mean deportation proceedings are going to be commenced against that person?” she asked.
Watson also points to the fact that the rule change would not expand the pool of people eligible to apply for the waiver. It only pertains to spouses and children of U.S. citizens, not permanent lawful residents, which make up a bulk of the immigrant community. Immigrants deemed inadmissible for any other reason other than unlawful entry – like those accused of crimes – would not be allowed to apply for the waiver.
For others, it’s too soon to make a call on the proposal.
“Everyone in the advocacy community is very hopeful, but it’s too soon to tell because we don’t even have the proposed rule, much less the final rule,” Dan Kowalski, an attorney and the editor of Bender’s Immigration Bulletin, said. But he added the proposal should have been pitched years ago.
The Border Network for Human Rights, an El Paso-based advocacy group, applauded the move as a small step in the right direction, but called it significantly short of comprehensive immigration reform. Complete reform includes a sensible border enforcement policy and a path toward legalization for the illegal immigrant population already here, the group says.
“We can absolutely see how [the proposal] is going to change the lives of some people. But it’s just a tiny minority,” said Cristina Parker, communications director for the advocacy group. “It’s not to undercut how much it would mean to someone who now doesn’t have to face the prospect of going to a foreign country alone. ... But it’s just a sliver, it’s almost like a crumb.”
USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas said last year the agency received about 23,000 waiver applications and approved about 17,000. There are an estimated 11.2 illegal immigrants in the country, including 1 million children, according to the Pew Hispanic Center’s most recent estimates.
But as some conservatives malign President Barack Obama over the move - Lamar Smith of San Antonio, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, called it "backdoor amnesty" - others applauded the proposal as sensible policy.
Though it said it falls short of comprehensive reform, the Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform Coalition said it is a significant step toward preserving family unity.
“Let’s set the record straight, certainly more should be done. But it is a positive measure,” coalition co-founder Robert Gittelson said. “It’s going to help thousands of people that would normally not come out of the shadows and try and regularize their status because they’d be afraid.”
Gittelson said the announcement is a well-timed move by the Obama administration, which needs to shore up its support from the burgeoning Latino demographic heading in to this year’s elections.
“I am entirely suspicious of the motivation. But that being said, it’s still a positive move, and I think a very smart and necessary” move, he said.
But he also points out that at least historically, Republican presidents have been more warm to immigration reform that Democrats. The current rule that bans immigrants from returning for three or 10 years was passed under the Clinton administration, he says, and the last reform, or “amnesty” as critics call it, was passed in 1986 under President Ronald Reagan. He also notes that President George W. Bush at least attempted to pass reform, once in 2006 and 2007, while the Obama administration has deported a record number of immigrants.
“President Obama promised that he would try to pass [reform] in his first year and he has not,” he said. “Now he cites Republican opposition as being the reason why he couldn’t pass it, but I don’t think that he really gave it enough of an effort to see if that was true.”