Conn. politicians join national immigration debate

After Senate Democrats faced the crushing failure of a gun control bill backed by Sen. Chris Murphy and Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 earlier this month, immigration reform legislation has come to dominate the national media spotlight and spark statewide debate.

The bipartisan bill currently discussed in Congress would provide a 13-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States. Satisfying Republican requests to strengthen border security and prevent a wave of illegal immigration, the Department of Homeland Security would be required to spend about $6.5 billion in the next decade to bolster enforcement. The legislation also proposes a merit-based point system for obtaining a green card that demonstrates preference to immigrants with job skills, education and family ties to the United States.

Blumenthal emphasized that the package is comprehensive — establishing a path to citizenship, securing national borders, holding employers accountable for hiring practices and assuring that the DREAMers, young people who immigrated to the United States before age 18, can find a way to citizenship.

But state Democratic legislators criticized the bill’s proposed path to citizenship as punitive.

“This is the best we can do?” said State Rep. Roland Lemar, a Democrat who represents New Haven. “Community members I have spoken with can’t imagine waiting another 13 years to be eligible for citizenship, most have already paid numerous fees over the years, and the overwhelming majority of these folks are gainfully employed, send their kids to our schools and are our closest neighbors.”

Senate Minority Leader Larry Cafero, a Republican, did not return request for comment.

Lemar said the path to citizenship seems to require those who apply to maintain a certain level of income, pay thousands of dollars in fines and re-register every six years. He added that the bill also excludes hundreds of thousands of people who came to the United States after 2011, such as those who have received Temporary Protected Status. Luis Luna, a volunteer for New Haven-based advocacy group Unidad Latina en Accion, agreed that the timeline for obtaining citizenship does not take into account the complexity of family-based immigration and was merely written to satisfy Republicans.

Local immigrant advocates and legislators also cautioned distinguishing an elite class of immigrants through the merit-based point system for obtaining a green card. State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield said that while the system seeks to attract more skilled immigrants who can fuel economic growth, it also turns its back on an American tradition of welcoming all immigrants to U.S. shores and allowing them to pursue the American dream.

“What happens to the people at the bottom of the totem pole who compete with skilled workers?” Holder-Winfield said. “But how do you design a system that takes into account the value of a human being?”

Luna said that many undocumented workers who arrive in New Haven might be marginalized by such a system that does not benefit all immigrants equally. The bill would eliminate reunification green cards for siblings and married children, as well as the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, a green card lottery for immigrants from low-immigration countries. Lemar said that canceling these programs is detrimental for cities like New Haven that have well-established immigrant communities and that are hoping to welcome more family members and a diverse immigrant pool.

Though the bill eliminates green card consideration for siblings and married children, the United States would create up to 120,000 new visas per year for foreign-born entrepreneurs who want to start a business in the United States and an initial 20,000 visas for low-skilled workers who businesses identified as filling a need.

“While this might be good for American businesses, and certainly smart of us to not limit entrepreneurs who will likely create numerous jobs in the United States, I don’t think it’s the right strategy to eliminate the other visa programs that often serve to strengthen families or communities here in the United States,” Lemar said.

Legislators also identified what they regard as a hole in the bill — it does not address the Secure Communities program, which seeks to deport undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes, but has deported individuals guilty of minor crimes such as traffic violations. Holder-Winfield is a sponsor of the state’s Connecticut Trust Act, which seeks to regulate Immigration Customs Enforcement detainments sanctioned under Secure Communities.

“I don’t trust the federal government to get its act together on comprehensive reform,” Holder-Winfield said. “I don’t know what about 2013 is particularly special.”

New Haven has an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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