Immigration Reform: When Will It Pass? Who Benefits?

As you know, immigration reform has been a hot topic for several years in political and activist circles in the U.S. On Capitol Hill, proposals have been hammered out, dissected, decried, and after a great deal of work, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013” was approved by a majority in the United States Senate last June. This bill addresses border security, bolsters work programs to facilitate the hiring of both high- and low-skilled foreign workers, and grants a pathway to citizenship to over 11 million undocumented immigrants. It would bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows, preventing inhumane deportations that have divided families for far too long. Young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children would be able to earn green cards in five years, as would some agricultural workers.

But, almost one year has passed since the Senate passed this immigration reform bill. Even though members and economists from both Republican and Democratic parties sing the praises of comprehensive immigration reform, it hasn’t yet become the law of the land. Why not? Perhaps more importantly, when this finally happens, who will benefit and who will not? How will it affect workers on both sides of the border?

First, why is this bill not yet U.S. law? Though the Senate approved it, immigration reform is not yet law because both Houses of U.S. Congress must pass it. The House of Representatives has not yet done so. A powerful minority, including the leadership of the House of Representatives, has stalled because, they say, they do not trust President Obama to implement the law in the way they think it should be done. They argue against provisions in the bill that would grant undocumented immigrants provisional legal status to stay in the U.S. before border and enforcement measures are met.

However, the voices of both Americans and our neighbors in Mexico who support immigration reform are growing ever stronger. The Latino vote is becoming ever more important to our politicians in the U.S. Our President supports the reform bill, as passed by the Senate. In fact, on March 22, in Washington D.C.’s political newspaper, “The Hill”, Senate Democratic leaders said President Obama will act unilaterally to reform the nation’s immigration system if the House of Representatives fails to pass legislation by the end of July.

Who will benefit from comprehensive immigration reform?

Workers. As detailed in this BusinessWeek article, the Senate’s immigration bill adds protections for undocumented workers in two ways, and these have the potential to change how factories, warehouses, and restaurants that rely on illegal labor do business. First, employers who exploit undocumented workers by stealing their wages can be imprisoned for 10 years, up from six months under current labor laws.

Also, exploited immigrant workers who become whistleblowers will be allowed to apply for special visas that are currently reserved for crime victims, called U-Visas. Typically, employers who underpay and abuse workers can stop them from filing claims with the threat of outing them to authorities. In general, the circumstances under which many unauthorized immigrants work—getting paid in cash, being wrongly classified by employers, or having faked a Social Security number to get work—make it difficult to bring a legitimate wage theft lawsuit against an employer. (Using a fake Social Security number does not disqualify a person from worker protections.) In theory, the U-Visa would protect workers from retaliation and make it easier for them to bring cases to court.

If more workers become citizens, workplace dynamics could change dramatically. After the U.S. passed immigration reform in 1986, illegal workers who were granted amnesty saw their wages increase 15 percent in three years, says Raul Hinojosa, associate professor at the University of California Los Angeles. Some moved on to better-paying jobs, but many simply found that they had more bargaining power to demand higher wages.

Farmers and agricultural workers in the U.S. Due to labor shortages, farmers often hire undocumented immigrants when they are unable to find qualified legal workers in America. In a group of crop workers surveyed between 2007 and 2009, 71 percent were foreign-born and most were undocumented. The comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate offers agricultural workers a path to become legal workers, within five to seven years as long as they continue agricultural work. This provision will allow farmers to hire the legal workers they need while also providing the promise of increased protections, improved work conditions and, possibly, higher wages, for the workers.

Mexican economy. Past studies have found that legalization programs would increase immigrant wages by about 20 percent, largely because more immigrants would switch into higher-paying occupations if their status were normalized. There will be more opportunities for Mexicans who are granted a path to legal status to earn higher wages and to become entrepreneurs. Remittances sent by Mexicans from the United States have grown from $3.7 billion in 1995 to a peak of $25 billion in 2007, as The Washington Post reported in 2012. The $25 billion figure makes up about 3 percent of Mexico’s GDP. Conceivably, higher-paid immigrants could increase the amount they send home, thus further boosting the economy there.

U.S. economy. Though the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States do so under the radar, they nonetheless are active participants in American society and in many cases would be willing contributors to the country’s economic and political life, as well.

With legalization, immigrants would likely earn higher wages, allowing them to contribute more to the consumption of goods and services. They would also pay more taxes (they now only pay payroll tax and sales tax). By allowing high-skilled immigrants to enter the legal workforce, the bill would also boost U.S. productivity.

Families. Most importantly to many people, immigration reform will mean the reunification of many families. We should all look forward to the day when the inhumane division of mother from child across our border is a thing of the past. Current legal immigrants who have petitions pending with the USCIS for spouses, children, parents, and siblings will have their petitions adjudicated faster when the new law takes effect. The reason: the immigration reform bill calls for a clearance of the backlog of pending immigration petitions still awaiting visa numbers. (The backlog is currently estimated at tens of millions.)

U.S. citizens who wish to sponsor adult children and siblings should do so immediately because as long as their petitions are received by the USCIS before the new law takes effect, their petitions will be allowed. Furthermore, those people that submit their petitions now will have them adjudicated in a shorter period of time. This is due to the backlog clearance that will be undertaken once the new law comes into effect in order to pave way for the anticipated new immigration laws.

Who does not stand to benefit from the U.S. immigration reform bill?

Residents of border towns and those who want to cultivate friendlier relations between Mexico and the U.S. may have problems with the bill. Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Jose Meade, has criticized the bill for proposing 700 more miles of border fencing and doubling the number of Border Patrol agents. “We are convinced that fences do not unite [both nations],” Meade said. “The enlargement of this wall is not congruent with plans to create a modern and secure border, and to develop the region.” He went on to say that plans for increased fencing and patrolling – which have been attached to immigration reform efforts by some politicians – would hamper commerce along the border and disrupt the lives of 14 million people who live in counties on either side of the fence.

“It is a very unfriendly move,” former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda said on MVS Noticias, one of Mexico’s top radio shows. Castañeda described the U.S. proposal as something that would happen along the borders of enemy countries “like North Korea and South Korea” – another border where the U.S. stations thousands of troops.

Regarding this issue, UC Berkeley professor Michael Dear wrote in a March 11, 2013 New York Times op-ed, “Mutual interdependence has always been a hallmark of cross-border lives. Residents on both sides of the line regard parts of Mexico and the United States as their home. For them, the border is a connective membrane, not a line of demarcation … The border fence, however, undermines this cooperation and cohesion, as it splinters lives and scars landscapes.”

Since the Senate bill has not become law, there is still time to address the issues and imperfections in current immigration reform proposals. We must make our voices heard.

We are hopeful that action will be taken to offer better protections to workers and to allow families to stay together, whether it happens because Congress finally passes immigration reform into law or President Obama takes action to make changes himself.

In the meantime, we would all do well to remember the provisions in NAFTA which create special professional and investor visas to facilitate economic and labor opportunities in the North American region. Workers, employers and investors in the U.S. and Mexico are underutilizing these visas. We are missing opportunities that are already offered under our immigration system.

To speak to an immigration attorney about such opportunities or other immigration issues, please contact us today to schedule a consultation.

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