Immigration Reform: Dream or Nightmare?

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Despite the tough conditions set forth by the Senate, millions of undocumented hoped to come out of the shadows starting this year. But immigration reform is faltering in the House of Representatives and its fate is more uncertain than ever.

We Are Not All Equal

"I don't think that I deserve [a mere] permit; I deserve my residency with a straight path towards citizenship." That is the emphatic opinion of Jose Delgado Soto, a weathered 75-year-old Mexican farmworker interviewed by in reference to the Senate's debate on Immigration Reform.

Delgado first came to the U.S. in 1986, trying to take advantage of the amnesty granted by U.S. Congress under the Reagan Administration. He couldn't benefit from the reform but he stayed nonetheless. Two years later he decided to go back to Mexico, but poverty and the lack of a future pushed him again across the border.

Back then, crossing was easier. "There weren't so many things at the border, there was no fence," he said to "Nowadays everything is much more complicated, and there are many who are trafficking with people's hopes," he said with a blend of anger and nostalgia. That is why he never returned to Mexico. Not even when his parents passed away.

Delgado is one of the 11.4 million Mexicans, born in Mexico and currently living in the United States. Them, plus 22 million ethnic Mexicans born here make up the largest segment of the Hispanic population of the U.S., which is estimated to be around 52 million people. Mexicans already represent 11% of the U.S. population, according to figures from the Pew Hispanic Center.

But not all Mexicans living in the U.S. are "equal." Delgado, who has earned a living with multiple jobs, is one of the 6.5 million compatriots living in the shadows and who along with 4.5 million immigrants from other countries carry an unbearable burden: the lack of resident status and work permits.

For more than 20 years, Delgado has been living in Homestead, Florida, performing farmwork of all sorts, without the benefits and services available to a worker with documentation. Though without Social Security, unemployment insurance, and even a simple driver's license, he has been paying taxes and avoiding trouble with the law.

According to the National Farmworkers Survey, 70% of farmworkers come from Mexico, and the majority of which are undocumented. Between 200,000 and 700,000 of the 1.1 million farmworkers in the U.S. lack immigration documents, said recently Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

"The reality is that many, perhaps most of the U.S. farmworkers are undocumented and it has been like that for quite some time. We have an immmigration system which is completely broken. I believe that undoutedly this is the case," said Vilsack during a meeting of the American Royal Center held last June in Kansas City.

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In Search of a Dream

"Once I get my papers, I want to continue studying, improve my Spanish and help others like many people have helped me." That is Margarito Cruz Ramirez's dream, a 25-year-old Oaxacan who came to the U.S. with his mother when he was little over 2 years old. Today he is part of those undocumented known as "dreamers."

To him, the true dreamers were his parents, and all the people from his parents' generation who decided to come to this country in search of a better future and better opportunities for their children. "Those are the original dreamers," he said to

Nevertheless, Margarito doesn't shun the label of "dreamer," adopted by many youngsters like him who came to the United States as children. When they tried to obtain what their parents craved for them--education--they were faced with the barrier of their immigration status. Margarito became an activist.

"It was a year ago when I found out about a group who marched from Florida to Washington, D.C. demanding President Obama to stop deporting students like me, who simply wanted to go to school and contribute to this country," said Margarito. "It was then when I grasped the word 'hope.'"

Since early 2001, there have been attempts in the House of Representatives and in the Senate to approve legislation to grant temporary resident status to these young dreamers. It would allow them to go to school as well as offer them a path to citizenship if they could demonstrate readiness to serve the country. So far all atempts have failed.

In June 2012, President Obama's administration established by Executive Order the Deferred Action Program for undocumented immigrants who arrived as children, halting the deportations of "dreamers" for a period of two years, which can be renewed. Thus opening up opportunities for them to attend college or join the armed forces, and making them eligible to obtain work permits.

Undocumented immigrants must be under 30 to benefit from Deferred Action. According to the Immigration Policy Center, a non-partisan organization based in Washington, D.C., out of the 4.4 million undocumented immigrants under 30 who currently live in the U.S., about 1.3 million would be eligible for Deferred Action.

Up to May 2013, out of the 520,157 "dreamers" who applied for the program, 18,971 were rejected. Considering the number of undocumented immigrants who are eligible, since there are 425,000 who are under 14 and do not qualify, the program has had good results.

But the "dreamers" want more than that. Many have assimilated already. "I feel American. When I think, when I speak, it is in English. Just English. I've tried to think in Spanish or Mixtic, but it doesn't work. That means that I am an American," said Margarito.

He wants to give much more to his country, and he would if he could. Nearly 85% of the "dreamers" are Hispanic, and according to the Pew Hispanic Center, the percentage of Hispanic students graduating from high school to attend college exceeds that of white non-Hispanic students (69% vs 67%).

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Broken Promises

Both Jose and Margarito represent two groups of immigrants: the farmworkers and the "dreamers." There is a consensus that without the first, the U.S. agricultural system would collapse. The second group came to the U.S. as children and have assimilated.

These two groups only account for about 2.5 million immigrants who do not have residence permits in the U.S.--there are about 11.5 million undocumented.

After amnesty was approved by Congress in 1986 under Ronald Reagan's second term, which allowed nearly 2.5 million people living in the U.S. without permits to legally stay in the country, the influx of undocumented immigrants increased considerably.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, between 1990 and 2000, the undocumented population grew on average by 500,000 per year. Despite the the security measures put in place after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the undocumented population continued to grow in the early years of the new century.

In December 2005, the anti-immigration rhetoric by the most conservative groups resulted in legislation that was approved by the House of Representatives known as the Sensenbrenner Bill, named after its sponsor. It penalized undocumented immigrants and called for the construction of a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Throughout 2006, the Senate debated several proposals aimed to soften the Sensenbrenner Bill, including a bill co-sponsored by Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy that contemplated the legalization of millions of undocumented. None of these projects won the majority's support, killing the first attempt to have a serious and comprehensive immigration reform since 1986.

Nevertheless, the immigration issue did not disappear from the political scene. According to those who oppose it, the immigrants without resident permits not only were taking job opportunities away from American workers and bringing down salaries, but they were also becoming a heavy burden to the state because they were using public services like health and education at the U.S. taxpayers' expense.

It was obvious that the immigration system was broken and needed to be fixed. It was then in 2008 that the democratic candidate for president, Barack Obama, made comprehensive immigration reform one of his key campaign promises.

President Obama failed to deliver and discontent spread quickly, not only among the undocumented but also among immigrants in general and particularly among Hispanics who not only account for the largest percentage of undocumented residents in the country but also have become a decisive voting bloc in national politics.

Only the fiery rhetoric against immigrants by the Republican Party and by its candidate Mitt Romney, who proposed self-deportation, saved Obama from an electoral punishment by Hispanic voters. In addition, by reiterating his promise, Obama won Hispanic support again, which played a crucial role in his victory in the 2012 presidential election.

Moderate republicans understood that to keep defying one of the most decisive demographics in the country would be tantamount to a political suicide, and for the first time since the 1986 amnesty, opened up to the real possibility of bipartisan effort to fix the country's broken immigration system.

So earlier this year, four Democratic senators (Harry Reid, Richard Durbin, Charles Schumer, and Robert Menendez) and four Republican senators (John McCain, Marco Rubio, Jeff Flake, and Lindsey Grahm) began to work together--they became known as "the gang of eight."

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A Wall Between Friends

The project of the gang of the eight, which was supported by the White House, moved swiftly through the Senate. It was submitted for discussion on June 21 and approved with 68 votes in favor and 32 against on June 27. For the approval of the bipartisan bill, the vote in favor by 14 republican senators was crucial.

Two issues dominated the Senate's debate on immigration reform. First was border security. The initial condition by the sponsoring senators was that in order to proceed with the legalization of the undocumented population, there must be a plan by the Department of Homeland Security to guarantee 90% border security.

This meant that the authorities should be capable of capturing or sending back 90% of the people who try to cross the border illegally. With that goal in mind, they proposed to increase the resources for border control agencies and to reinforce the fence that separates Mexico and the U.S. in "high risk sectors."

The track record for previous immigration legislation were not the best. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 also increased border control and assigned resources to increase the vigilence on the American side of the border. Nevertheless, the influx of immigration never stopped.

As a result, the "gang of 8" proposals were deemed insufficient by several Republican senators who asked for additional guarantees for the border to be secure before there is any legalization for the undocumented. After a short and heated debate, a bipartisan agreement was reached under the so-called Hoeven-Corker Amendment.

According to that amendment, nearly 30,000 million dolloars would be assigned over the course of a decade to double the number of agents patrolling the border (which would mean hiring 20,000 additional officers), the border fence would be extended and reinforced (completing the 700 miles under the Secure Fence Act of 2006), and new reconnaissance planes would be acquired to patrol the border, in addition to other things.

The other point of friction was the so-called "path to citizenship." Those opposed to the reform (inside and oustide Congress) vehemently reject the notion that the undocumented, whom they consider law-breakers, could become U.S. citizens with the same rights as those who never broke any rule.

"The bill will never become law the way it is written," said Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, one of the favorites of the Tea Party. "Of all the issues surrounding this bill, that of citizenship for those who are illegally in the country is the most divisive," he said, anticipating what would happen in the House.

The issue of citizenship is so contentious that even for "the gang of eight" it was difficult to include it in their original proposal. According to Sen. Charles Schumer, his proposal provided for "a real, yet arduous path towards citizenship, to make sure that those people who are here illegally assume responsibility for their actions."

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Twice as Invisible

Border security and the path towards citizenship were not the only obstacles for comprehensive immigration reform that emerged during the Senate's debate. Concerning the potential beneficiaries, there were two other issues to become potential headaches: identity and taxes.

First, those eligible under any type of immigration reform in the U.S. must prove that they indeed have an identity. Many immigrants not only are undocumented in the U.S. but also in their country of origin. They will have to begin by obtaining a valid birth certificate.

According to Mexican Senator Ivonne Alvarez, head of a group of Senators from the PRI who introduced a proposal to reform the Mexican Constitution and guarantee the registration of all children born in Mexico, there are currently more than 7 million Mexicans without a birth certificate. Many of those currently reside in the United States.

Quoting figures from the Right to Identity Foundation (Fundación Derecho a la Identidad), Senator Alvarez estimates that of the 6.5 million Mexicans undocumented in the U.S., about 30% (1.9 million) do not have a birth certificate. Without it, they won't be able to benefit from possible immigration reform in the United States.

The other problem has to do with tax payments. To be eligible for the benefits granted by the Senate's version of the immigration reform bill (or the version approved, if any), undocumented immigrants will have to demonstrate some form of compliance with the fiscal requirements concerning income received in the United States.

By law, any person working in the United States, regardless of their status, must file a tax return with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Since the undocumented do not have a Social Security number, the undocumented must file the tax return using a Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).

Although many are critical of this system, arguing that it allows the undocumented to take advantage of some tax credits, the ITIN has become the only "document" for many people living in the country without a residence permit. Some banks accept it. But in order to have one, the individual must pay taxes, even if he or she is self-employed and receives payments in cash (for example harvesting crops, doing landscaping or cleaning houses).

Many undocumented are not aware of ITIN, or fear filing any document that may reveal thier immigration status, thus never applying for an ITIN. According to the Economic Report to Congress submitted by former President George Bush in 2005, "more than half of the undocumented" pay income taxes. Among those who pay income taxes, many file a W-9 form (proof of wages paid) with false Social Security numbers.

From the fiscal point of view, those who don't have an ITIN do not exist. Those who use a false Social Security number (or use someone else's number) can be prosecuted for "identity theft," according to Attorney Ezequiel Hernández. If they are convicted, it will make them ineligible for immigration reform benefits because the law describes those acts as "crimes of moral turpitude," which cannot be resolved within the immigration context unless the person is acquitted.

In the Heritage Foundation's report "The Senate's Comprehensive Immigration Bill: Top 10 Concerns," the conservative group says that the reform proposal approved by the Senate doesn't give the IRS or the Treasury Department any guidance to estimate the amount owed by those who never filed tax returns, and therefore it may be necessary to condone the debt, a hard pill to swallow for the most conservative sectors.

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A Difficult Road

The bill approved by the Senate attempted to please everyone. It would open a path toward citizenship, but militarize the border and make life unbearable for those unable to legalize their status. Additionally, the path to citizenship would be long and expensive. It will "pardon" the fact that the person has lived illegaly in the U.S., but the legislation will also impose a substantial fine.

For reasons of national interest, the "dreamers" and the farmworkers will receive special treatment. "Dreamers" could receive U.S. citizenship after five years and farmworkers would be given a "speical status" (a blue card) allowing them to obtain a residence permit in the same time period.

Anyone else must wait at least 13 years to obtain citizenship; pay an average of $5,000 in applications, fines, and filing fees in addition to attorney's fees; demonstrate that they are not in trouble with the law; pay their taxes in a timely fashion; buy health insurance; learn English, and complete a civics education course.

In exchange, they'll be able to work and receive a permit to travel out of the country. In addition, despite the requirement to pay taxes, they will not be eligible for benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps and other assistance programs for low income families.

It will be difficult to reach the magic figure of 90%, a measure that relates the number of apprehensions and rejections to the number of people attempting to cross the border, without specifying how the legislation will measure those who succeed in crossing and going into the shadows.

In order to dissuade more crossings and to make sure that those who cross illegaly in the future do not get a job, the Senate's bill mandates, before giving residence status to the current undocumented population, the implementation of the E-Verify program, which requires employers to check the legal status of all prospective employees.

The E-Verify system was established in 1997 as a voluntary initiative. An evaluation from 2009 showed that it was only being used by 3% of the nation's employers. The Department of Homeland Security then requested a study to determine why that is and the results were surprising: 63% of the employers were not aware of the program, and those who know about it were not using it because the costs outweighed the benefits.

Besides being expensive and cumbersome for both the government and the employers, the program could propitiate discrimination against minority workers, and errors in the database could result in the firing of workers who are U.S. citizens or lawful residents.

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A Dream Adrift

The limitations on the Senate's approved bill will be nothing compared to the amendments that could be introduced in the House of Representatives. There, the ultra-conservative influence has grown stronger in recent years and immigration reform has never been a popular subject, and there are at least three reasons to be somewhat pessimistic about its passing.

First, most members of the House have a negative record regarding immigration. Tom Wong, a professor at the University of California in San Diego, estimates that, considering their record, at least 200 of the 435 house members would be inclined to vote in favor of an immigration reform bill similar to the one approved by the Senate. But 218 votes are required to pass the bill.

Second, unlike the Senate, the House of Representatives doesn't have just one single bill. Seven representatives (4 Democrats and 3 Republicans) worked for several months drafting a bill that, according to them, would have its own version of the reform. But many representatives have their own version of the bill. The "Group of 7" in the House may not find the same reception as the "Gang of 8" found in the Senate.

Six of the seven (Democrats Luis Gutierrez, Javier Becerra, and Zoe Lofgreen, and Republicans Mario Diaz Balart, John Carter and Sam Johnson) represent districts with a high Hispanic constituency (more than 20% of eligible voters). According to figures from the Pew Hispanic Center, less than 25% of the electoral districts in the country, as of last year, fell in that category.

Most members of the House represent districts tailored to their ideology and have been in office for several terms. On average, a member of the House in the 113th Congress has served for 9.1 years, or 4.6 terms, at the moment they were last elected into office, according to the Congressional Research Service, and none of them wants to risk their seat in 2014.

That is why despite a high level of support for immigration reform (more than 70% according to a poll conducted in mid-June by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic organization, and Harper Polling, a Republican organization) there has never been any certainty in gaining House approval for reform. Winning the popular vote, similar to what happened to President Obama in 2012, doesn't secure control in both chambers of Congress.

A third reason is that the Republican leadership in the House doesn't show as much support for reform as the Republicans do in the Senate. John Boehner, speaker of the House, warned from the onset that the proposal would only be presented for a vote if it had the support of the Republican majority (118 of its 234 members) and rejected flat out considering the Senate's legislation.

This presents several possible scenarios that range from being a dream come true to a nightmare.

One possibility is that when the "Group of Seven" present their proposal after summer recess, with or without citizenship, and that after a long debate, during which numerious amendments will be presented, they'll have a draft to submit to a conference committee to reconcile with the Senate's bill. This would open up the possibility to save some of the Senate's proposals, including, in best case scenario, citizenship.

Another scenario is that a majority of Republicans, despite being against comprehensive immigration reform, decide that they must do something to avoid being accused of klling the dream of 11.5 million of undocumented people. In this case, they may opt to discuss a series of independent projects, emphasizing issues like security, pushing the debate beyond the current legislative session.

In that case, Eric Cantor, the Republican majority whip, and Bob Goodlatte, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, proposed a path to citizenship only for "dreamers," not their parents. This so-called Kids Act receives support from John Boehner who calls the initiatives that favor "dreamers" "a matter of basic justice," despite the fact that in 2010 he voted against the Dream Act.

Many analysts fear that dragging out the debate on immigration reform will result in a situation similar to that of 2006 when reform legislation failed but the construction of the fence was approved. The final result would be the approval of the "dreamers" bill and perhaps something about farmworkers, along with border security, the implementation of the E-Verify program or the penalization of the undocumented.

In that case, the government will have to enforce the law. Millions of people, like Benita Ayala, will go back to living in fear of being deported and of leaving their families behind, or will continue to live in the shadows without a permit and without residence authorization. A path towards citizenship is something more than a wish--it is a demand for people like Jose Delgado.

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Text: José Fernando López. Design: ARK INK. Videos: Univision Network, (Jorge Cancino, Laura Prieto). Interactives: Pablo Gutiérrez, Data4. Programming: Edmundo Hidalgo. Project Managers: José Fernando López, Carolina Servigna, Junelly Rojas. Assistant: Helga Salinas. Product Manager: Alex Behrmann. Photos: Getty Images.

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