Immigration Reform /Dream Act Alive Again

By: Attorneys Robert L. Reeves and Joseph Elias

This week has been a busy one for the President and Congress with immigration being placed at the forefront of the President’s agenda. For two days in a row the President urged Congress to push through immigration reform on many levels. He asked for laws with tougher sanctions on employers who hire undocumented workers. In the same breath he urged for the creation of a new guest worker program that would also allow for undocumented workers to become documented.

Senators Kennedy and McCain previously proposed the creation of a new H-5 guest-worker visa category. In addition the bill would allow undocumented workers to pay a $1,000 penalty in order to obtain the new status. This bipartisan bill also provides for tougher sanctions against employers and would address the President’s request. His speech has breathed new life into this bill.

A competing bill was introduced by conservative members of Congress that would require undocumented workers to return to their home country and apply for a new visa category of very limited duration. Foreign workers from countries known to have high visa denial rates would be expected to trust the U.S. consulate in their home country would issue the new visa. These bills are at loggerheads with each other. President Bush’s two speeches are placing pressure on Congress to resolve their differences and provide a working solution. The President’s key goals for immigration reform are to not provide an amnesty, but to provide a mechanism for the undocumented to become documented. He believes in providing an incentive for foreign workers to legalize their status. The conservative guest-worker bill provides no realistic incentive and would be very difficult to achieve the President’s goals.

In addition to the President’s speech Congress reintroduced the Dream Act to the Senate floor. The Dream Act will allow undocumented persons who entered the U.S before they turned 16 to obtain conditional permanent residency (a conditional green card) through a new form of Cancellation of Removal. The undocumented person must have lived in the U.S. for at least 5 years and has either been admitted to a college in the U.S. or obtained a high school diploma or general education development certificate. This person could then be granted conditional permanent resident status for a 6-year-period. The condition can be lifted after the person shows that he or she has earned a college degree or has completed at least 2 years towards a bachelor degree or higher in the U.S.

The Dream Act is a tremendous relief for children who entered the U.S. without status or fell out of status. It rewards the pursuit of a higher education. While it requires the alien to place himself in removal (formerly known as deportation), it provides relief in the form of a green card.

These new developments illustrate how quickly immigration law can change. Not all the provisions requested are immigration-friendly, but, we hope Congress is able to strike a fair balance and provide the much needed immigration reform. The spotlight is now focused on immigration, hopefully, we can expect to see reform in the immigration laws. A flexible and realistic guest-worker program that encompasses a broader range of occupations would be most welcome. As would a program for children rewarding those who choose to continue their education.