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An Anti-Immigrant Bill Masked as Reform

On Monday, 67 senators voted for cloture on Hoeven-Corker, a “border security” amendment to the immigration reform bill. The vote virtually guarantees that immigration reform will pass in the Senate. At the same time, it also guarantees the bill’s costs to immigrant communities will far outweigh its benefits.

The refrain that Democrats and their allies have been repeating – that the immigration reform bill offers a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants – is simply a lie. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that if the bill were to pass, roughly 4 million of the current 11.5 million undocumented immigrants would be excluded. Their estimate is overly optimistic, and it’s possible that nearly half of undocumented immigrants would never benefit from the legalization. But even those who would eventually benefit are in for a long, difficult, precarious path.

Fifty Arizonas

The reform bill would create a bleak future for millions of undocumented immigrants. To kick off the post-reform era, ICE would be required to organize a massive deportation campaign, rounding up 90 percent of all immigrants who overstayed a visa in the previous year. As it progressed, day-to-day life would become significantly more difficult for undocumented people than it is currently.

Once all legitimate businesses adopt the E-Verify employment authorization system required under the proposal, more immigrants would end up in dangerous, unregulated jobs where they are misclassified as independent contractors for the shadiest of companies. If a worker presented a fake Social Security number to her boss, she could be imprisoned for five years.

Undocumented immigrants are currently issued driver’s licenses in nine states, but they would likely lose that privilege under reform. The immigration bill requires that state licenses comply with the REAL ID Act and other federal regulations restricting identification cards. If a state does not comply, most of its residents would be forced to obtain a US passport solely for work authorization purposes. That is more than enough incentive to guarantee states will restrict driver’s licenses.

There is also the matter of the border. Before the Hoeven-Corker amendment, the bill was set to infuse an additional $6.5 billion into militarizing the US-Mexico border. But under the amendment, which is so bad that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer initially expressed support, that number comes to well over $40 billion. The plan involves doubling the size of the Border Patrol, completing 700 miles of fencing, and flying more aerial drones over the area. The Border Patrol would set up more checkpoints in border communities and commit dozens more human rights abuses each day. Migrants would still cross, but in increasingly remote areas, and more people would die as a result. If apprehended, border crossers would face between one and 30 years in prison, depending on their prior criminal and immigration records.

A Raw Deal, Even for Immigrants Who Legalize

Most people who legalize under the reform bill would be granted status as registered provisional immigrants (RPIs). RPI status would be renewable in six-year increments. But immigrants earning below the federal poverty line who have also been unemployed for more than 60 consecutive days would lose their legal status. Day laborers, seasonal workers, and many others would likely face exclusion on this basis. (The Congressional Budget Office presumed that only a “small percentage” would lose RPI status, leading them to overestimate the number of immigrants that would be legalized).

To maintain RPI status, workers would be compelled to stay at jobs with abusive conditions so as not to risk unemployment. Women would be forced to stay married to abusive men so they could meet the household income requirement. Most immigrants would have to maintain RPI status for at least 10 years before obtaining green cards. It would be at least 15 years before they could qualify for most public benefits and at least 10 years before they could receive health insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. Many would struggle to access health care and other services over that time.

Another problem with RPI status is that it would lock immigrants into a single path to legalization. Immigration law is complicated, but many undocumented immigrants can obtain a green card fairly quickly once a citizen child or parent petitions for them. The reform bill would eliminate these options, however, and RPIs would be stuck on the 10-year track (there are limited exceptions in the case of marriage to a US citizen of the opposite sex). In effect, many immigrants would have their green cards significantly delayed under the reform bill.

Democrats and their Friends

In the two days before the Senate vote, Senator Chuck Schumer hosted a series of conference calls with his allies – unions and advocacy groups that claim to speak for immigrants. He let them know he agreed to include the Hoeven-Corker amendment, which would drastically increase deportations and border militarization. This was just the latest in a series of compromises, starting with the exclusion of same-sex couples from the bill’s initial version.

Schumer asked for his friends’ continued support in spite of the amendment and in spite of the collective punishment immigrant communities would have to accept in order for some to be legalized. His friends willingly obliged (they aren’t the ones being punished, after all). Organizations from SEIU to National Immigration Forum to Church World Service to America’s Voice each issued a press statement following the same talking points and accepting Hoeven-Corker as a necessary compromise.

Lately, Senator Schumer has even begun to promote himself as some sort of civil rights leader. In a CNN appearance, he stated, “This [immigration bill] has the potential of becoming the next major civil rights movement… I could see a million people on the Mall.” This is all very rich coming from a man who has accepted more than $100,000 from the private prison industry.

It’s possible that a million person march on Washington could actually happen. The organizations involved are good at mobilizing people, drawing on their hopes without actually discussing the substance of the bill or listening to their concerns. And the bill might contain just enough racist state violence to appease House Republicans after some modification, although that is an open question. More likely, the House will reject any Senate bill and the Democrats will try to capitalize off of the disappointment in the 2014 midterm elections.

Regardless of how far the legislative process continues, defenders of human rights need to push back hard against this immigration reform bill and the spineless grasstops advocacy groups that are promoting it. Luckily, it seems that a few organizations have started reflecting on whether or not continued support is worth it and Presente.org has come out to formally oppose the bill. Even PICO and United We Dream, two organizations that had been closely invested in immigration reform, staged a protest in Schumer’s office on Tuesday afternoon as it became clear that the senator was in the process of adding even more anti-immigrant amendments to win Republican votes.

If things continue down the same path, however, either Congress will pass an immigration reform bill that is far worse than the status quo, or the precedent Democrats have set will rear its ugly head the next time Congress tries to address immigration, with he nasty provisions resurfacing. When they haven’t been sycophantically supporting Schumer and other Senate Democrats, immigrant and civil rights groups have been either deluding themselves into thinking they can amend the bill or hiding behind a futile campaign to have Obama issue a moratorium on deportations. My hope is that they will all wake up and realize that the task at hand is to fight their “friends” in Congress and kill this bill.

Justin Feldman lives in Washington, DC and blogs at http://openborders.us

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