How Many Could Be Left Out of Immigration Reform?

Over the past two weeks, immigrant families and members of their congregations have begun to hold daily prayer vigils at Congressional district offices across the U.S., in some cases inside the offices themselves. Why? One goal is to bring members of Congress face-to-face with undocumented immigrants, including many who may be left out of a path to citizenship in the current legislation under review in the Senate.

This week, when the Senate Judiciary Committee begins to debate the details of immigration reform, senators will also be able to look into the eyes of immigrants who have everything at stake in the legislation they are writing. Immigrants and their religious supporters will be in the hearing room and on Capitol Hill to deliver a simple message that immigration reform needs to include all 11 million aspiring Americans in a direct path to citizenship.

One of the big challenges for senators, in particular, will be to bridge the chasm between their own economic circumstances and the lives of lower-income immigrants.

While the length of the path to citizenship in the Senate bill -- 13 years or more -- has rightly gotten a lot of criticism, there has been less attention focused on the obstacles built into the Gang of Eight legislation that could end up excluding many hard-working low-wage workers from legal status.

Under the current Senate proposal, people would have to pay thousands of dollars in fines and fees to become legal permanent residents. Immigrants will have little time to save up and gather their paper work because the initial application period is just one year (with the ability of the DHS Secretary to extend it by 18 months). To keep their legal status, people will have to meet stiff work and income requirements that will be difficult for many immigrants working at minimum wage jobs or as day laborers and domestic workers.

Economists have found that immigrants earn higher wages, increase their educational levels and pay more in taxes when they are able to obtain legal status. Indeed, immigration has fueled economic growth throughout the history of the United States, and most economists believe that providing today's immigrants with a path to citizenship will be a big net plus for the economy. But that economic boost cannot occur if people remain undocumented.

Through a network of 60 faith-based organization and 1,200 religious congregations, PICO National Network has been surveying families with undocumented members to test out how the Senate bill might work in practice. One clear message is that costs are going to be a big hurdle for a lot of people. One woman shared that she had been able to afford the $465 fee for one of her children to apply for the new Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, but was still saving up for her two other children to obtain legal status. Indeed, despite the great success of DACA, less than half of young people who are thought to be eligible have applied, with costs being a big reason.

What seems like pennies to one person might be an insurmountable wall to others. Eleven of the 18 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are millionaires. The Committee members have an average net worth of $12 million. Will they be able to imagine themselves walking in the shoes of immigrants doing back-breaking work for low wages? Will they grasp the challenge that families living in poverty face pulling together thousands of dollars to apply for legal status? Will they understand why requiring someone to show that they've worked continuously without any gap of longer than 60 days for six years in order to keep their legal status does not compute with the actual experience of working people?

Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) -- one of the non-millionaires on the Senate Judiciary Committee -- quipped that "half my family would be excluded" from the path to citizenship under the Gang of 8 proposal that he helped write.

While we don't know for sure how many people would be excluded by the economic barriers in the Senate proposal, we do know that about one in five undocumented immigrants in the U.S. is living in poverty. About one-third of immigrant workers from Mexico earn under $20,000 a year. If just half of all undocumented immigrants in poverty are unable to apply for or keep their status, that could exclude up to two million people who would continue to live in limbo.

The proposal also has a cut-off date of December 31, 2011, which means hundreds of thousands who've arrived in 2012 would be deported, including people who have family members in the country. With these and other barriers, all told, two-to-three million people could remain undocumented after immigration reform is implemented, unless improvements are made to the bill.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will have an opportunity to lower these unnecessary barriers as they make amendments to the Gang of Eight bill. This should not be seen as a Democratic or Republican issue. Now that both parties have embraced immigration reform, it makes no sense to do a half-way job. Our shared goal should be include all 11 million undocumented residents as full-fledged members of society. The American people want Congress to do this and do it right. The last thing they want is for Congress to spend the year working on immigration reform, only to leave several million people still undocumented, in a permanent underclass.