Government debates options for illegals
Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on immigration reform, which featured testimony from Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented worker from the Philippines who went public with his status in an article published in June 2011 in The New York Times.
"Immigration is about our future," Vargas said during his opening remarks. "Immigration is about all of us, and before we take your questions, I have a few of my own: What do you want to do with me? For all the undocumented immigrants who are actually sitting here at this hearing, for the people watching online and for the 11 million of us, what do you want to do with us?"
This is the answer that people like 23-year-old Northumberland County resident "Ashley," who came to American illegally with her parents at age 4, is desperate to learn.
Last year, when President Obama halted the deportation of young people like Ashley - hard-working, upstanding individuals who don't present a risk to national security - he said, "We are not going to ship back 12 million people, we're not going to do it as a practical matter. We would have to take all our law enforcement that we have available and we would have to use it and put people on buses, and rip families apart, and that's not who we are, that's not what America is about."
With the proposal came the Deferred Action Program, which allows illegal immigrants the opportunity to be considered for relief from removal from the country and makes them eligible to receive legal status to work for two years at a time.
But then what? The status can be renewed after two years, but those individuals are left in what Ashley and many like her describe as "limbo."
There's the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, a bill in limbo itself since 2001. It would provide conditional permanent residency to certain illegal aliens of good moral character who graduate from U.S. high schools, arrived in the United States as minors, and lived in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill's enactment.
But it would only give these people legal status, and not full citizenship, a distinction that doesn't escape Ashley's notice.
In his State of the Union address last month, Obama called for sweeping immigration legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship, but no bills have yet been introduced in Congress.
Meanwhile, Florida Sen. Marc Rubio has become the Republican poster child for immigration reform as he works with a bipartisan group of legislators.
In a Time Magazine cover story in February, Rubio told reporters, "America is a compassionate country that says, 'Let's help these folks.' But you have to do it in a way that doesn't encourage people to bring their kids in the future, so they can get the same benefit. It's complicated."
Rubio's plan includes a path to citizenship. In his proposal, Rubio wants undocumented immigrants to register with the government, be subjected to backgrounds checks (those with serious criminal records would be deported), be fined and pay their back taxes and be placed on probational legal status. They would have to learn English and prove civics knowledge and demonstrate employment. The process would end with them becoming permanent residents and full citizens with all rights and privileges.
Obama and Rubio agree there should be stronger enforcement, but the senator's plan calls for the country to secure borders and determine employment verification first.
Ashley doesn't particularly like Rubio, but she mostly agrees with his immigration plan, including paying fines and penalties.
"Of course," she said when asked if she agreed. "That would bring money in. Imagine how many people are here undocumented. That's a lot of money."
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-11), who could not be reached this week for comment, has previously characterized both Rubio and Obama's proposals as "amnesty" to people who came to the United States illegally, and he says that's wrong.
Barletta wants enhanced enforcement of people who ignore the expiration of their visas, a crackdown on employers who hire illegal immigrants, a system for employers to check immigration status and other measures to secure the borders before even considering "a pathway to citizenship."
Ashley doesn't think the issue of undocumented immigrants will ever go away, but wants it to be easier and faster for people to become citizens.
- In 2011, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) removed 396,906 individuals.
- As of June 2012, the Obama administration has deported 1.2 million individuals. In the Bush administration, there were 1.6 million individuals deported in eight years.
- According to the 2010 Census data, 1.3 percent (160,000) of Pennsylvania's population was considered undocumented immigrants. According to a study from the Pew Hispanic Center, California has the highest number of illegal immigrants, but Nevada has the largest proportion of illegal immigrants with 7.2 percent of the state population and as much as 10 percent of its workforce. California and Texas follow at just under 7 percent of their populations.