Immigrants rights march
Protestors march near the White House during a push for immigrant reform on May Day, in 2010.

The "Gang of Eight" hammering out a bipartisan immigration reform bill will release their proposal any day now. The legislation will offer a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants and protections for the labor rights of immigrants—but is also likely to step up enforcement and border security measures and worker verification systems. The Nation invited four immigration activists and policy experts—Kica Matos of the Center for Community Change, Sarahí Uribe of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and Janice Fine of Rutgers University—to outline what the bill absolutely must include, and what it can't, to be a fair and just solution.

A Clear and Direct Path to Citizenship
Kica Matos is the director of immigrant rights and racial justice at Center for Community Change.

If we want to resolve the status of undocumented Americans and fix our patchwork system of failed and misguided policies, we need to make it possible for all 11 million immigrants to have a clear and direct path to citizenship. While there are a myriad of issues that comprehensive, compassionate immigration reform legislation must address, citizenship must be the centerpiece. Because Congress is fond of alphabet soup when it comes to naming legislation, we urge them to think about the A-E-I-O-U of immigration reform.

Attainability and Affordability:
The 1986 reform bill excluded the 600,000 immigrants who had entered during the previous four years. This failure was the beginning of the situation we find ourselves in today.

For the next wave of reform, immigrants will likely have to prove they were in the United States as of a certain date. The date imposed should be a recent one so that it covers the vast majority of undocumented immigrants who are settled in our communities.

According to the National Council of La Raza, 43 percent of all immigrants who attended naturalization workshops delayed applying because of cost. The new law should not impose excessive fines and additional fees that will make it impossible for eligible immigrants to earn legal status.

Expediency and Eligibility:
We should avoid obstacle courses and shifting goal posts. The legalization process should happen entirely within the United States. It should also not be contingent on arbitrary metrics such as increased border security or additional interior enforcement.

A broad spectrum of immigrants with varying family, work and immigration histories must be eligible, including day laborers and stay-at-home parents. The new law should not only include those who are fluent, but must include English-language learners. The proficiency standard should be realistic and we must ensure that immigrants have the resources available to learn the language. And family unity waivers must also include same-sex relationships.

The path to citizenship must not contain arbitrary deadlines and must provide continuous enrollment for those eligible. People shouldn’t be excluded for minor crimes of necessity, such as driving a car without a license. Since the 1986 immigration laws went into effect, the number of crimes that make one ineligible for immigration status has grown tremendously. Even long-term legal residents with families in the United States now face deportation for minor and nonviolent charges. The new legalization program should not add more restrictions to these already extreme standards. Instead, the reform law Congress passes this year should restore humanity to the entire system, so that minor mistakes no longer mean automatic banishment for immigrants with roots in the United States.

Immediate family members should be able to join their loved ones while applying for permanent status.

Every day that Congress fails to address our broken immigration system, 1,100 families are torn apart, workers are suffering abuse and children are traumatized by the loss of their parents.

As our families continue to suffer, our communities become more frustrated and angry with the politicians delaying progress. Politicians must choose people over politics. The time for immigration reform is now.

The Federal Government Must Ditch Its Discredited Deportation Programs
Sarahí Uribe is the national campaign coordinator at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

It’s no secret that a quota of 400,000 deportations per year drives immigration enforcement in the United States. Will federal immigration reform change this? Will deportations decrease, remain the same—or worse, increase?

The strongest federal bill would, of course, qualify all 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the country for relief. However, the Obama Administration’s discredited deportation programs, like “Secure Communities” (known as S-Comm), remain as the biggest obstacles in getting us there.

S-Comm turns every police officer into a gateway for deportation by using pre-conviction arrest data to conduct immigration checks. As a result, thousands of families have been torn apart for offenses as minor as driving with out a license and immigrant communities across the country live in constant fear of interacting with local police because of their key role in funneling people into the deportation and detention system. 

The President must undo the damage he caused over the last four years by ditching S-Comm and instead codifying “TRUST acts.”  TRUST acts direct local authorities to limit or entirely ignore request from federal immigration authorities to hold individuals in their custody for 48 hours longer than they otherwise would to facilitate transfer to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Across the country, local jurisdictions and state governments are proposing and enacting these new policies to alleviate the deportation crisis. Just yesterday, the California state Assembly advanced its TRUST act, a bill that could have prevented more than half of the 90,000 deportations in the state as a result of S-Comm.

The fight for legalization is inextricably linked to the fight against deportations.  It is axiomatic that deportation is the biggest barrier to an immigrant’s path to citizenship. Each time we collectively organize to stop an individual’s deportation, the scales tip a bit closer to legalization for all immigrants.  When a day laborer falsely accused of stealing stops his deportation through a very public campaign, the case for the inclusion and legalization of all day laborers is advanced. When a previously deported parent returns to this country to be reunited with their children and fights to stay, the conversation of who has the right to remain is broadened. When a local jurisdiction or state adopts a TRUST act (thus refusing to blindly participate in the deportation apparatus), we get closer to legalization.

Even if immigration reform legislation passes this summer providing a path to citizenship for 11 millions immigrants, S-Comm and other deportation programs still must be ended for reform to be truly comprehensive. Here’s why: for millions of people who will be on the path to citizenship, which will include a wait time, S-Comm is like a line backer knocking people off the path before they even reach the finish line. People in the process of applying will continue to be deported by S-Comm and other deportation programs. The consequences of interactions with local police will be heightened. And in some jurisdictions, local police will be more motivated to racially profile and arrest would-be- citizens knowing their arrest could prevent their adjustment of legal status.

In the coming days, we will be pushing Congress to pass legislation that provides political equality for millions of immigrants.  And we will be fighting back hard against punitive enforcement measures that will be deemed as tradeoffs in this process

But we should also push those Mayors, Governors, and Congressional representatives who are eager to voice their support for comprehensive immigration reform.  Rather than allowing these local officials to provide mere lip service, they should work to stop deportations by crafting legislation too.  For years, lawmakers have been content to voice support for reform while ignoring deportations.  That is changing.   At all levels of government, there is now a resounding demand of  “ni una mas,” not one more deportation.

Immigration Reform Must Work for Women
Ai-jen Poo is the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the co-director of Caring Across Generations.

Immigration reform won’t work unless it works for women like Pat Francois.

Pat is a nanny in New York City who has given many years of her life to raising and nurturing other people's children. Pat takes great pride in her role:  Arranging play dates, taking the children to the ballet and children’s museum, reading stories, playing in the park and most importantly, keeping them safe. Millions of working moms and dads count on women like Pat in order to participate fully in today’s workplace. But Pat is undocumented and cannot participate fully in our country that she now calls home.

Pat, like most domestic workers, does not have pay stubs and tax forms to prove she worked for her employer. Her world, like much of the informal economy, is a paperless world.  In a survey of over 4,000 low-wage workers in three largest cities in the US – New York, Chicago and Los Angeles—workers in occupations with high percentages of women did not receive pay stubs with their pay.  New York, Illinois and California do require employers to provide a pay stub or a wage statement with pay. But 98% of surveyed undocumented nannies, 92% of maids and housecleaners, and 77% of garment workers did not receive any pay stubs. Immigration reform that requires paperwork conclusively proving a history of employment will automatically exclude these workers and many others.

In isolated and informal workplaces it is unrealistic to expect workers to ask their employers for documentation, especially immigrant workers with little control over the terms and conditions of their work in the first place. And often, employers who are asked for documentation simply fire their workers fearing their own liability. Linking eligibility to proof of employment at any stage on the road to citizenship could exclude Pat and hundreds of thousands like her. And it would also exclude an estimated 40% of undocumented women work as stay at home moms, spending their days and nights caring for their own families.

Any common-sense immigration reform legislation must include a roadmap to citizenship that acknowledges the contributions of the millions of mothers and women like Pat who make invaluable contributions in our communities everyday. Instead of requiring proof of employment, a flexible proof of residence should be a permissible alternative for immigrants in the informal economy.  A “road to citizenship” that is littered with obstacles, roadblocks, dangers and detours isn’t much of a road at all.

Unsurprisingly, under the current immigration policy, two-thirds of women enter as dependents with no official ability to work on their own. Immigration reform must ensure that women who come via future legal channels can be employed, and apply for papers on their own without depending on an employer or a spouse by allowing for expanded self-petitioning options.  Sponsorship relationships have notoriously created a breeding ground for violence against women and abuse of women on the job.  And specific immigration relief must be made available for women who are victims of trafficking and other severe workplace violations so that they are not discouraged from reporting abuse by threats of deportation.

Immigrant women workers will only a play a greater role in America’s economy going forward. 2011 marked the first year of the “age wave,” when the baby boom generation has begun to turn sixty-five at a rate of a person every 8 seconds. In less than 20 years, 75 million Americans will have reached retirement age. The aging of America means the overall demand for direct-care workers, who are predominantly women, is projected to increase by 48 percent over the next decade. But the population of US-born workers is only growing by about 1%.  Immigrant women are needed to fill this labor shortage.  Now it’s up to us to make our nation’s policies match our nation’s needs.

A Temporary Worker Program Must Empower Immigrants
Janice Fine is an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at the School of Management and Labor Relations, Rutgers University.

Immigration policy has always posed difficult choices for organized labor: should it advocate for restrictive policies in order to preserve labor standards for the existing native and naturalized workforce, or champion more open policies and focus on the preservation of labor standards through organizing the immigrant workforce and fighting for more effective labor standards enforcement?  To be sure, in its responses over the long sweep of labor history, one can observe a “movement wrestling” between “restrictionist” and “solidaristic” positions. But today it is undeniable that the national labor movement has never been more actively pro-immigrant. The AFL-CIO, UNITE HERE and SEIU, in particular, have become linchpins of the immigrant rights movement.

In the wake of the Congress’s failure to reform immigration in 2007, the AFL-CIO and the US Chamber of Commerce have come to agreement on the broad outlines of a “future flow” program that would regulate immigration into the country.  This is essential, because even after the estimated 11.5 million undocumented workers in the US today are provided some kind of legal status, immigrant workers will continue to enter the country. A new build-up of undocumented workers will be the inevitable result, unless a system is put into place that provides a practical, legal way of entering the country to work.

The future flow proposal will attempt to stem illegal immigration by identifying labor shortages and creating opportunities for immigrants to migrate and take up jobs legally. The program has two components: a new research bureau that will study the impact of immigration on low wage labor markets, identify labor shortages and make annual recommendations to Congress, and a new visa program for employers to petition for foreign workers in lesser skilled, non-seasonal, non-agricultural occupations called the W-Visa. Unlike the existing temporary worker programs—in which employers hold all the cards—the W visa would allow workers to move between employers rather than be bound to a single one and to self-petition for permanent status after a year. (This will make organizing immigrant workers much more feasible.) Workers will be covered by all state and federal employment laws. Employers will be required to pay all fees under the program and to offer W-visa-holders wages and working conditions that will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of US workers. Those who have laid off workers within 90 days or whose workers are on strike or locked out will not be eligible to apply for visas.

Debates about guest workers and contract laborers have been at the center of labor’s struggles over immigration since reconstruction. Contract labor has always been viewed, with good reason, as both anathema to union interests and exploitative of the temporary workers who participate. Also implicit in labor’s placement of strong limits on temporary programs is the ideal that in a democracy, economic and political citizenship must always go hand in hand—and that it is never acceptable to allow workers access to a state’s labor market without access to equal political rights.  Although understandable, this traditional stance has profoundly hindered the ability of organized labor to address the reality of labor migration, which is intrinsic to globalization. The difficult question is whether, even in the face of limited rights, these workers are better off being able to access American labor markets.

Lant Pritchett has highlighted the astonishing impact more open migration policy would make to economic development of the global south. Pritchett calculates that the industrial world currently transfers about $70 billion a year in overseas development assistance but that allowing just a three percent increase in the migrant labor force through relaxing restrictions would result in a $300 billion increase to poor country citizens—dwarfing any aid or trade programs.

The bureau and W-visa reflect a commitment to protecting native and naturalized workers in the United States while still welcoming and defending the rights of newcomers. To accomplish what the W-Visa is intended to do, there must be enough visas available for immigrant workers so that they can choose to come to the US legally—and there must be strong commitment to ensuring their labor rights once they’re here.

Read Aura Bogado's post on undocumented youth infiltrating immigration detention centers.