January 23, 2004

Long Lines, Red Tape Threaten Bush Immigration Plan

By Pilar Marrero

Beyond the political posturing on all sides about President Bush’s proposed immigration reform, the long lines and anguished waiting of would-be immigrants in the system shows that the process of granting documentation to newcomers has ground to a virtual halt.

Bush’s proposal, if implemented, would send millions of additional applications into a blocked pipeline.

The paralysis that has gripped the immigration system after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is mind-boggling: a report by the GAO (the investigative arm of Congress), released the day after Bush’s proposed temporary worker program, showed that the backlog of applications pending before immigration authorities grew from 2.3 to 6.3 million in the last two years.

An allready crowded border could get worse.

Immigration attorneys call it the “No” mentality: procedures take twice as long to process since the process came to a virtual halt, and applicants for visas, legal residency, work permits or citizenship are more likely to be rejected. Lines are growing longer by the minute, they say, even after Congress raised the fees on immigration processes and invested $160 million during the last two years to chip away at the backlog.

Before 9/11, Bush had promised to bring the time spent processing applications for permanent residency down to a maximum of six months, or 30 days for temporary visas. After that, “everything came to a dead halt,” says Los Angeles immigration attorney and former immigration prosecutor Carl Shusterman. “We’re waiting two to three years for green cards and seven or eight months for temporary petitions. They’re looking for any reason to deny applications.”

Part of the problem was the dismantling of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the creation of the new Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BICE) under the banner of a huge new bureaucracy: the new Department of Homeland Security.

The immigration authorities’ new focus as a key part of the “fight against terror” took its toll on the processing of immigration benefits and created increased suspicion of foreigners.

The president proposed a temporary worker program that would grant three-year permits to work and travel in the United States with one opportunity to renew. If a worker wants to apply for legal residency, according to the president, he could do so by normal channels, meaning he will have to apply for residency through a family member who is already a citizen or resident, or through a labor-certification process.

According to experts, with the current backlogs and even with some increase in the ceiling of annual visas allowed for immigrants, the process can take many years, especially for nationals of countries like Mexico, who face an even longer line. By that time, the temporary worker’s permit could expire, requiring him or her to leave the country.

“We’re concerned people are getting confused they can get a green card out of this,” says Cecilia Muñoz Vice President for policy of the National Council of La Raza, a national Latino civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C.

Muñoz notes there are approximately 5,000 visas available each year for unskilled workers, while there are about 8 million undocumented workers in the country.

“They haven’t said they will dramatically increase the number of visas available, and that’s the only way (Bush’s proposal) could work,” Muñoz says.

The president has promised a “reasonable” increase in the annual limit of legal immigrants, but experts argue that, to accommodate the demand, the increase would have to be dramatic.

“It would have to be a huge, significant increase to make this a positive program,” says Jean Butterfield, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

“The whole system needs to be revamped. It’s got to be comprehensive reform. We need more numbers, more flexibility and higher visa quotas for certain countries like Mexico, India and Philippines,” says immigration expert Dan Kowalski. “We need a new attitude, a new view.”

Many question whether, in an election year, Bush will push Congress to pass real, effective immigration reform. His proposal has been criticized both by the conservatives of his party and by the Democrats, who deem it insufficient.

Democrats, according to insiders, are “shocked” that the president threatens to take yet one more issue from them with a bold political move designed to win the hearts of Latino voters.

Many immigration experts now recognize that Bush’s statements praising the undocumented immigrants as workers who come to the United States primarily to make an honest living, as well as his condemnation of the current immigration system, are important steps in the right direction.

“We couldn’t invest $20 million in a pro-immigrant campaign that could do what he just did for the image of the undocumented worker,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of National Immigration Forum, an organization that initially was critical of the plan and now has shifted position and will work to improve the proposal. “The principles are lousy, but the megaphone is amazing.”

All immigrant advocates agree on one point: real reform of the system means a clearer path to permanent residency and citizenship for the millions of workers who want not just a chance to make a living, but also a new life in the United States.

Pilar Marrero (pilar.marrero@laopinion.com) is political editor and columnist for La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles.

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