Waiting for a sign: Obama, Pinoys and US immigration reform

Ryan Macasero
Hundreds of thousands of 'illegal' Filipino immigrants in the US are hoping a new immigration reform law could mean a path to US citizenship

UNDER THE RADAR. There are an estimated 11 million people living in the United States illegally. They are fighting for legislation to legalize their status

MANILA, Philippines – In a December 2013 White House press briefing, US President Barack Obama told reporters immigration reform is “the biggest thing that I wanted to get done this year.” Obama admits that the system is broken.

The problem? “Too many employers game the system by hiring undocumented workers and there are 11 million people living in the shadows. Neither is good for the economy or the country,” read the White House’s statement on immigration reform.

But despite the glorification of immigrant contributions by politicians in hundreds of campaign speeches, undocumented immigrants are often portrayed now as criminals and drug addicts, and are treated as ‘undesirable.’

According to Pew Research, convicted criminals made up 59% of the removals in 2013. There are at least 4,150,000 undocumented immigrants without criminal offenses.

Undocumented Filipinos

Immigration reform is not just a Latino issue, but the immigration troubles of the Latino and Fil-Am communities mirror each other. According to latest media reports, at least 300,000 Filipinos are living in the US without proper documentation and are facing removal from the United States this year.

The prospect of a better life in America, a poor economy in their home countries – these are the conditions that compel immigrants to illegally cross into the US or overstay.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, a Filipino American, came out publicly as an undocumented immigrant through an essay published inNew York Times magazine called “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” Vargas’ story shocked those who knew him, but inspired millions of other living under the radar, and told another side to the immigration story – that “illegals” are not just criminals and gangsters.

Despite Obama’s support for legalizing undocumented immigrants and the call to stop deporting young and productive individuals, actual practice under the Obama administration seems to be a different story. Immigration reform activists call him the “deporter in chief.” Between 2 and 3 million undocumented immigrants have allegedly been deported from the US since he took office.

The influence of the Latino voters is one that Obama takes seriously. A stance too tough would not sit well with the Latinos, yet one too relaxed would alienate conservative voters, a major roadblock to passing immigration reform legislation. Republicans continue to support strict enforcement of border security and reiterate that no one who has entered the United States illegally should be allowed citizenship.

The President was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Another explanation

There’s another little-known policy that directly affects these numbers called the “full-bed mandate.” In a move to push immigration officers to enforce the law, Congress mandated that immigration detention facilities must be full and maintained at 34,000 detainees every day, with the mandate being tied to funding.

This could explain the high deportation numbers. The mandate is continuously defended by Republicans who say it simply compels immigration authorities to enforce the law. But critics say imposing a quota “is being done at a tremendous financial cost to taxpayers and a tremendous human cost to families.”

The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S 744) – the biggest overhaul of immigration reform laws which passed last July in the US Senate with an overwhelming majority – was the bipartisan solution to fixing the immigration mess. (READ: US senate passes historic immigration bill)

Those pushing for reform were elated when the bill passed, but reality sank in once again as the US summer recess approaches and no reform bills have moved in the House of Representatives.

Contention

The pathway to legalization is the most contentious amendment. While the Senate version allows a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States since 2011, the Republican Party (also referred to as the GOP), who dominates the House of Representatives, reiterated in their guiding principles of immigration reform, that they do not support a path to legalization.

It’s been a long and frustrating battle. The undocumented are waiting for a sign that hasn’t come yet. While both sides hint of willingness to compromise, it has yet to be seen.

Republicans say the undocumented should be able to live “legally and without fear” even without citizenship, given they “pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics and be able to support themselves and families.” Immigrants rights activists say, however, that this is a halfhearted solution to a serious problem and will not settle for anything less than citizenship.

Common ground

According to the US State Department, a little over 400,000 pending family-based petitions are from the Philippines. While S 744 would cut down times by eliminating the visa quota system, it would also eliminate petitions for siblings, which already take decades to approve, and cap the age of single children who could be petitioned at 31. This revised provision was made as a compromise with GOP lawmakers.

If the GOP had it their way, they would want to do away with family-based petitions completely. “For far too long, the United States has emphasized extended family members and pure luck over employment-based immigration,” their statement on legal immigration reform read. Both sides emphasize the need to shift legal immigration policy to increase visas for individuals with desirable skills that would benefit the US economy and lessen or eliminate visas for families.

There are no winners in this debate. President Obama is arguably among the biggest losers in the battle for reform. Not using his executive powers to stop deportations has angered advocates on the left, but if he should use it – it would alienate the GOP, the final roadblock to passing reform legislation. So will Obama get immigration reform done before the next election in November? I doubt it. And more importantly, what will the 11 million undocumented immigrants do until a law is passed in their favor? Only what they can do: fight and wait– Rappler.com

Image of man and child with American flag from Shutterstock

Ryan Macasero is a journalist and social media producer for Rappler. He previously lived in San Francisco.  

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Ryan Macasero

Ryan covers social welfare for Rappler. He started at Rappler as social media producer in 2013, and later took on various roles for the company: editor for the #BalikBayan section, correspondent in Cebu, and general assignments reporter in the Visayas region. He graduated from California State University, East Bay, with a degree in international studies and a minor in political science. Outside of work, Ryan performs spoken word poetry and loves attending local music gigs. Follow him on Twitter @ryanmacasero or drop him leads for stories at ryan.macasero@rappler.com