By: Sonia Torrico
As February draws to a close, the national eye is focused on Washington. While the majority of news stations and news articles are focused on the impending sequestration, it is certain that millions of people’s attention will be focused solely on another issue of national importance. No, not the beginning of March Madness, but rather the Senate’s current “Gang of Eight.” That is, on the draft legislation for immigration reform that Senators Michael Bennet (D – Colo.), Richard Durbin (D – Ill.), Lindsey Graham (R – S.C.), John McCain (R – Ariz.), Robert Menendez (D – N.J.), Marco Rubio (R – Fla.), and Charles Schumer (D – N.Y.) have been tasked with producing by March, which will affect the United State’s population of over eleven million undocumented immigrants. The issues that are front and center, and most contentious, for many undocumented immigrants and advocacy groups are 1) how accessible a pathway to citizenship will be and 2) what steps will be taken to secure the border. Since announcing his own plan for comprehensive immigration reform, President Obama has urged the Senators to maintain a commitment to a commonsense, bipartisan approach in drafting the legislation, with the understanding that he will submit his own plan to Congress if the Gang of Eight is unsuccessful in drafting a satisfactory plan.
President Obama’s proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, however, has not been with out criticism. The President puts forth a plan to: deter employers from hiring undocumented workers; streamline legal immigration by offering visas for graduating students in the STEM fields (similar to the proposed DREAM Act), family reunification, and foreign entrepreneurs; create a pathway to citizenship for current undocumented immigrants that holds them accountable for back taxes, civics, and imposes a penalty when applying for permanent residency; and secure the border by increasing funds for infrastructure and technology and implementing stricter removal of criminals. Immigrant advocacy groups have criticized the President’s proposal for creating too many barriers in the pathway to citizenship that could potentially leave lawful undocumented citizens without Medicare and other rights unless they could overcome the hurdles set forth in the pathway to residency or citizenship. Some members of the GOP, on the other hand, have criticized the plan for resembling amnesty that could potentially increase the amount of illegal immigration—especially without stricter efforts, which require more spending, to secure the borders. The Gang of Eight draft legislation will delve deeper into the current issues and is expected to address “how the visa process would be streamlined, what new types of work permits would be available, how the government plans to stop businesses from hiring illegal immigrants, how long people would wait for citizenship, how the border is declared secure, and roughly how much it would all cost.” (http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/01/28/v-fullstory/3204447/rubio-senate-gang-of-eight-unveil.html#storylink=cpy).
While the draft legislation for immigration reform will undoubtedly have an effect on the budget and economy (securing the border and deterring businesses from hiring undocumented workers), the legal field needs to prepare itself for the role that comprehensive legal reform will play in increasing demand for legal services. For example, 1.7 million undocumented immigrant youth are potentially eligible for the current Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals plan (“Deferred Action”); as a result, eligible youth have sought out increased legal advice and assistance in preparing their applications for Deferred Action. And Deferred Action only provides for temporary work visas and deferred deportation status, not access to healthcare or other social benefits. Comprehensive immigration legislation, on the other hand, would guarantee current undocumented workers fair pay, benefits, and, most importantly, the right to report violations and seek legal action in their personal or professional lives. Legal areas ranging from immigration to family law to healthcare law to consumer protection law will likely see an increase in activity as many of these immigrants are granted lawful status. Though the path to citizenship and the vote may take years, as both the President’s and the Senators’ proposed plans seem to suggest, this increased access to the law will be noticeable and potentially inspire more immigrant youth to pursue legal careers since they will be in the unique situation of understanding the perspective of the soon-to-be former undocumented immigrants.
The immigration reform debate is already heralding changes in how undocumented immigrants seek a legal voice. Not only are advocacy groups lobbying both the President and Congress for legislation that will meet the needs of the current undocumented immigrants, but undocumented immigrants are also seeking a larger voice for themselves through the Dreamer movement and even seeking to gain admittance to the New York Bar. The push for increased rights by undocumented immigrants and their advocates underscores that the need for a commonsense, bipartisan approach to immigration is here. The hope is that the “Gang of Eight” will recognize that now is the time for immigration reform and that the legal community will be adequately prepared for the effects this will have on the field.