Vivienne McLean is torn. “I go to every march, I come to every meeting, I sign every petition,” the silver-haired activist told me, laying out her credentials as an advocate on behalf of the estimated 11.7 million undocumented migrants in the United States. “But I am also a human being. I have to respond to my feelings about what is happening to my sister.”
We are sitting together at a seminar organised by the New York Immigration Coalition, and she has just asked an uncomfortable question. The seminar is launching a new report, Preparing for Legalization, which anticipates the day when comprehensive immigration reform will enable millions of undocumented migrants to regularise their status in this country. That day is not too far off, according to the seminar speakers, who anticipate that an alignment of political forces will allow the legislation through Congress this year. While Jamaican-born McLean welcomes that prospect, she fears that the monumental administrative task will push out waiting times for people who have applied to migrate to the US through formal channels.
“In June 2007 I applied for my sister to join me under the Category 4 program,” she explained. Category 4 enables adult US citizens to sponsor the migration of a brother or sister. “She has waited six years and still has another minimum six years to go.”
Like many other formal migration programs, Category 4 is subject to massive delays — US Citizenship and Immigration Services has a backlog of 4.4 million visa applications — and country-based quotas. Waiting times for Filipinos and Mexicans exceed those for Jamaicans, for example, extending out beyond 20 years. McLean wants an assurance that if Congress passes comprehensive migration reform it will also increase processing capacity massively so that applicants already in the system, like her sister, will not be forced to wait even longer. It is an assurance no one can give, not least because the shape of migration reform remains unclear.
So far, the main legislative action has been in the Senate, where reformers managed to assemble majority support for the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Bill. More commonly referred to as S 744, the bill was drafted by a bipartisan group of senators, known as the “gang of eight”, that includes Arizona Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate in the 2008 presidential election. In an effort to meet different goals and satisfy divergent interests, it links a process for regularising the status of millions of undocumented migrants — essentially a mass amnesty — to a comprehensive overhaul of the formal immigration program and a substantial beefing up of border security.
“… there has to be comprehensive immigration reform that includes some kind of legalisation in order to not have Republicans lose all of the future presidential elections.”
If it were to become law, S 744 would enable undocumented migrants to apply immediately for the newly created status of a Registered Provisional Immigrant, which would grant them formal work rights and protect them from deportation. A new set of border enforcement measures would be needed before these provisional immigrants could become permanent residents or citizens, however. According to a summary prepared by the Library of Congress, these include the construction of “no fewer than 700 miles of pedestrian fencing” and a doubling of staff numbers to ensure that there are “at least 38,405 trained full-time active duty US Border Patrol agents” along the border with Mexico. S 744 also seeks to address the concerns of people like Vivienne McLean, proposing measures intended to clear the backlog of visa applications within the space of seven years.
Of course a Senate bill has no effect unless it is also passed by the House of Representatives, where progress has been slower. In October, Democrats proposed a complementary immigration reform bill called HR 15, which replicates most of the measures in S 744 while taking a less militarised approach to border security. Rather than mandate certain levels of infrastructure and staffing, or require the use of specific surveillance technologies (like aerial drones), HR 15 focuses on creating targets and accountability mechanisms to ensure improved border control. The bill has yet to move beyond the committee stage. Even if it’s passed by the House, it will need to be reconciled with the Senate bill — a potentially tortuous process — before comprehensive immigration reform can become law.
Despite the hurdles — and political disappointments stretching back more than a decade — advocates of immigration reform are cautiously optimistic about progress in 2014. After addressing the seminar in New York, Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, told me that his optimism is based on the fact that “everybody now recognises that this is an issue that has to be dealt with”.
Another speaker at the seminar, Katherine Fennelly, a senior fellow at the Immigration Policy Center in Washington, concurs. She believes that Republicans have a strong incentive to support immigration reform ahead of the November 2014 mid-term Congressional elections. “Most opposition to comprehensive immigration reform has come from Republicans, but more than 70% of immigrants voted for Obama in the last election,” she said. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be up for grabs, along with 30 of the 100 seats in the Senate, and many state legislatures and governorships.
It has become a political truism to say that Republicans can no longer rely on the “white vote” to win US elections, and the country’s demographic trajectory suggests that this trend will intensify. Hispanics and Asian-Americans make up 10.8% and 3.8% of enrolled voters respectively; both groups are growing, and both overwhelmingly support immigration reform. As a result, says Fennelly, conservatives are under great pressure to compromise. “The Republican National Committee has put the writing on the wall. It has said that there has to be comprehensive immigration reform that includes some kind of legalisation in order to not have Republicans lose all of the future presidential elections.”