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Amendments that Matter: Path to Citizenship—Avoiding a Permanent Undocumented Population

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If you think the Senate Judiciary Committee’s markup of the Gang of 8 bill has been intense so far, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. As the SJC moves into Titles II and III of the bill—which cover everything from E-Verify to detention policy to family immigration to agricultural workers, not to mention the path to citizenship itself—we’re highlighting some of the major areas we expect to see addressed, and the amendments we’re particularly hopeful about or upset by within each one. That’s why we’ve started this “Amendments that Matter” blog series. Below is our own Dara Lind writing about avoiding amendments that would create a permanent undocumented population in the US.

Also view our list of key amendments filed in the Senate Judiciary Committee to S. 744

One of the biggest risks to the path to citizenship is creating a permanent undocumented population–people who can’t apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status, or decide that the risks of applying for status outweigh the rewards. Many of these amendments may sound technical or bureaucratic when the Senate Judiciary Committee takes them up for debate–but in reality, lives, families and communities hang in the balance. Here are some questions that the markup needs to answer:

  • What will the cutoff date be? Under the current bill, any immigrant who entered the country after December 31, 2011 is ineligible for RPI status. The cutoff date in the 1986 IRCA law left about 600,000 immigrants ineligible for legal status, creating a permanent undocumented population that would only grow with time; this could repeat history by leaving out hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have entered in the last 18 months. Senator Feinstein’s Amendment 14 would fix this problem by moving the cutoff date to the day the bill is enacted, and Senator Blumenthal’s Amendment 15, which would move the cutoff to the day the bill was introduced (April  17, 2013) would also help. On the other hand, Senator Lee’s Amendment 7 would move the cutoff date to December 31st, 2009—dumping hundreds of thousands more people into the category of “permanent undocumented.”
  • Will immigrants who have re-entered the country be eligible? Earlier this year we told you the story of Maria Arreola, who returned to the United States after being deported so that she and her young children could flee an abusive home. Senator Sessions’ Amendment 24, in addition to eliminating the “right of return” provision in the path to citizenship (which this series will address in another post), would keep her off the path to citizenship along with anyone else who had reentered the country after deportation.
  • Will immigrants who are eligible for legalization be protected from deportation?  Under the current bill, immigrants who are put into deportation proceedings before they have received official documentation can avoid being deported as long as they can show they are eligible for legal status. Both Senator Sessions’ Amendment 21 and Senator Grassley’s Amendment 11 would eliminate that, and set up an ICE race to deport as many people as possible before they had the chance to submit their applications. Furthermore, Grassley 11 would make anyone who had ever been in deportation proceedings ineligible for legal status. The sad irony is that Sen. Grassley is one of those who believes that the Obama Administration hasn’t been enforcing immigration law, and his amendment would hurt the very people who know best just how wrong that is.
  • Will the application process itself put immigrants at risk, or scare them out of applying at all? Senator Cornyn’s Amendment 5 hollows out the confidentiality protections in the current bill, and the prospect of telling ICE who you are and where you live would be enough to scare plenty of immigrants out of applying for the path to citizenship. (Similarly, Senator Hatch’s Amendment 3, which would require any immigrant applying for RPI status to submit a DNA sample, is an invasion of privacy that could intimidate immigrants from applying.) And Senator Grassley’s Amendment 10 explicitly mandates that any immigrant who applies for RPI status and whose application is rejected should be deported. With that kind of sick guarantee, it’s easy to see why many immigrants would decide that the path to citizenship wasn’t worth the risk.