By Nick Winnie
The Bush administration presented an ambitious plan to overhaul U.S. immigration policy to the Senate last week, drawing fiery criticism from members of both parties in Washington.
This proposal, known in the Capitol as the “grand bargain,” emerged from weeks of closed-door discussions between members of the Bush administration and Senate leaders. It includes a path to legalization for America’s 12 million undocumented immigrants, an increased emphasis on border security and a temporary worker program.
The bill’s centerpiece, a path to legalization and eventual citizenship for all of America’s undocumented immigrants, won broad support in this week’s senatorial debates, but many immigrants’ rights groups are still unsatisfied with the legislation.
Among the many contentious points within the bill, many liberals and grassroots immigrant groups are unhappy with the provision that undocumented immigrants must pay significant fines throughout the legalization process.
“The bill includes requirements and fines that are so burdensome that they would discourage most undocumented workers from reporting themselves to the authorities to get into the system,” said Jonathan Fox, UC Santa Cruz professor of Latin American studies.
In order to obtain this “Z” visa, a family of four immigrants would have to pay fines and fees of at least $4,500 initially, continue to renew their visas every four years, and, after a period of eight years, apply for permanent status, paying an additional $4,000 fee.
Many conservatives see the fines as a necessary punishment for breaking the law, despite the financial strain they may impose on immigrant families.
“The fines are necessary,” said Jeremy Naves, treasurer of the UCSC Republicans. “They either entice some people to go home or act as retribution for not going through the legal process.”
Like much of the bill, this series of fines paid throughout an undocumented immigrant’s 13-year path to citizenship represents a political compromise.
President Bush, who strongly endorses the bill, is attempting to placate conflicting interests of members within his own party who have rejected past legalization proposals as “amnesty” for criminals, while still providing U.S. employers with a steady supply of labor from foreign nations.
Bush’s long-desired temporary worker program is another integral and controversial part of this legislation. The program seeks to strengthen the economy by offering 200,000 short-term visas per year to immigrants outside the U.S. who come to the country to work.
Naves, like many Republicans, views the proposed temporary worker program as beneficial for both the U.S. economy and the immigrants involved.
“People will be able to come here and eke out a higher standard of living,” Naves said. “The strength of our economy is defined by our labor force.”
Many Democrats and labor activists are critical of the program, citing the vulnerable position guest workers face in the U.S., lacking citizenship rights, as well as the adverse effects on low-wage Americans who would find themselves in a much larger labor pool.
“[With the temporary worker program] you are bringing in people to become second-class citizens,” Heather Stephens of UCSC Democrats said, “and it creates downward pressure on low-wage American workers.”