The notion that the proposed immigration reform bill affords a direct path to citizenship for 11 million people is no more than propaganda designed to deceive the gullible, trickery in the guise of real and immediate change. The long-awaited and ballyhooed, patched and diminished bill that recently passed the Senate now lies in the hands of Republicans who dominate the House of Representatives; they will likely impose yet more restrictions on the bill before they will allow a vote.
Thus it appears that the so-called “path to citizenship” will not be as smooth or immediate as claimed—one only has to look at the rigid time limitations and other requirements to see that. Adding to this is the historically ambiguous attitude toward acquiring citizenship demonstrated by legal immigrants.
Of course, after two decades in an anti-immigrant environment, any cause for hope of a regular life for the millions who now dwell in legal despair is to be celebrated. In the 1990s, immigration reform had no chance of passing for political reasons; later it was delayed because of the “war on terror” that followed the events of 9/11. This bill is better than the legal limbo in which the millions of undocumented immigrants now live. Many of them will indeed benefit, albeit over the long term and with many restrictions.
Little is said of the uncertain and difficult future of the other millions who won’t qualify or who will decide not to risk deportation for fear of falling victim to the bureaucratic intricacies of the reform, nor of the inexorable arrival of new immigrants. Their lives will not be made easier by an almost militarized border sealed with walls and technology, closely watched points of entry and severe penalties to prevent the employment of anybody without proper papers. The risk of death and abuse crossing the border and the extreme exploitation of immigrant labor amounting to virtual slavery will significantly increase.
Nevertheless, this reform has generated huge expectations among undocumented immigrants who have waited so long and endured such a protracted, frustrating struggle. Their lives have been full of limitations and their ignorance of the immigration system has left them at the mercy of unscrupulous individuals who misinform and hoodwink them with offers to regularize their undocumented situation for money. These extortions often occur more frequently and with more intensity when there is talk of legalization or reform. Alleged notaries and phony immigration lawyers offer impossible promises, causing many immigrants to lose not only their money but also the chance to live in this country. Many are deported because of errors in their immigration documents thanks to these “experts.”
On the other hand, almost no one correctly tells these immigrants that to become a citizen an immigrant must first obtain permanent residency, and then after three years apply for citizenship. In order to apply one must complete several requirements, including passing a test in English and another in citizenship that contains questions about American history, Constitution and civic life. Many legal immigrants doubt they could pass this examination. Others fear rejection because of some previous legal incident, such as a traffic violation or a forgotten or unresolved minor crime, since immigrants must show “good moral character.”
According to the respected Pew Hispanic Center, in the last 20 years only 40 percent of legal immigrants have become citizens. Mexicans make up the overwhelming majority of the eligible group, and scarcely 35 to 40 percent of them have made the transition; this compares to 60 percent of immigrants of other nationalities.
Even so, it is a substantial increase in recent years. In the 90’s only 20 percent of Mexicans accomplished the change.
What will transpire under the new reform remains to be seen. It’s estimated that it will take at least 10 years to become eligible for legal residency and another two years before one can apply for citizenship, provided one qualifies.
During that time the politicians—especially Republicans—hope to ingratiate themselves with that bloc of potential voters, while at the same time trying to convince the growing group of Latino American voters—the children and grandchildren of immigrants who represent 60 percent of the more than 50 million Latinos in this country—that they have their best interests at heart.
So the supposed political and social importance of the new immigration reform is more myth than reality, because although it would legalize about half of the 11 million, the majority of whom are Latinos, very few will eventually become citizens and those not for 15 or 20 years.
For that reason many think this reform is nothing more than a political measure in the anti-terrorist agenda that will militarize the border and exert greater control over Mexico and the violence of the drug war. Perhaps that’s why the Mexican government, once again controlled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, has had almost no comment, subordinating itself to the machinations of the United States and turning its back on its citizens who live here.
Victor Reyes is a Sonoma-based translator, language teacher and writer and a native of Puebla, Mexico with decades-old ties to West Marin. The Spanish language version of this column is available online at ptreyeslight.com.