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'Comprehensive reform is not amnesty'

Last updated on: November 28, 2012 22:51 IST

The next year could be a year of hope for many undocumented immigrants who have been waiting for years for the United States government to give them some kind of legal status, says Ritu Jha.

President Barack Obama, who gave some relief to the undocumented through deferred action in August, last week said comprehensive immigration reform will be a priority in his second term.

"My expectation is, is that we (will) get a bill introduced and we begin the process in Congress very soon after my inauguration," Obama said at his first media conference after re-election.

"This election," Anoop Prasad, immigrants' rights attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, told India Abroad, "was really a signal to both parties that they really need the support of immigrant communities -- in the way Latino and Asian voters came out."

"It's really a pressing issue for both communities. There are so many who are undocumented and were deported. Under President Obama's first term, more people were deported then ever -- more than 400,000 a year."

Prasad pointed out that deferred action -- which allows for prosecutorial discretion towards some who came to the United States as children -- was different from immigration reform.

"Deferred action does not result in a Green Card, or citizenship," he said.

Even under a comprehensive reform law, it would take years for an undocumented immigrant to get US citizenship.

"We are not asking the president for citizenship," said Prasad. "What we are asking for is the pathway to citizenship through a legal mechanism. It might take five to 15 years and have a waiting time to get citizenship. But comprehensive reform is just the pathway. This is not amnesty."

He agreed that getting such reform passed into law will be a political fight for Obama.

"I do not expect it to be smooth sailing," Prasad said. "We know there is going to be some resistance to immigration reform, from the Republican side primarily."

He believes that with community and political pressure a breaking point has been reached.

"Things have become so unjust.  The system really cannot take it anymore, so something needs to happen," said Prasad. "I hope we have reached a point where the Republicans can finally come on board and reach a reasonable solution. We are always hopeful, though not optimistic."

The Asian Law Caucus is the nation's first legal and civil rights Asian-American organisation in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Prasad speaks to undocumented people every day. Are they hopeful? He said they have seen disappointment so many times in 2006 (during President George W Bush) and in 2010 when the federal DREAM Act failed.

"But I think there is reserved and measured hopefulness that something  finally is happening in 2013," Prasad added.

He said there has been a lot of interest in deferred action, especially among Indian Americans. "We have some Indian applicants approved (for deferred action), " said Prasad. "We have helped a good number of Indians applicants who applied in the Bay Area."

"In a media statement on Obama's re-election, the Asian Law Caucus said, "We need balanced and humane legislation that reduces the backlog of immigration cases, holds families together, values and protects workers and keeps American businesses competitive, restores judicial discretion and due process to immigration enforcement, and creates a roadmap to legalisation for all aspiring citizens."

San Francisco immigration attorney Kalpana V Peddibhotla told India Abroad, "At a minimum, they (the government) should have relief for the young people who entered the US as minors and have grown up in the US and in every way, but for their documents, are American."

"These are our DREAM Act students. I also think we have to have relief for skilled workers and professionals who have long wait periods for receiving their Green Cards. Those long wait times are driving away talent and making the US less competitive." 

She pointed out that the US has failed to provide a 'start-up visa' to encourage would-be immigrant entrepreneurs and that some of the family categories have wait times that run upwards of 10 to 15 years.

Shaamini Babu, president, South Asian Bar Association of Northern California, said, "SABA-NC was proud to contribute funds for Mandeep Chahal, (who was granted a stay on deportation to afford her attorneys more time to pursue legal options) to travel to Washington, DC to speak in support of the DREAM Act in 2011."

"Since the implementation of the deferred action for child arrivals program in June 2012, SABA-NC has encouraged its members to volunteer at legal clinics to assist DACA applicants," Babu said.

Another California-based immigration attorney, Anu Peshawaria, said, "There are two very pressing parts of immigration reform that require immediate attention -- the need to streamline immigration policies for foreign nationals possessing important skills in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields and an entrepreneur visa to encourage innovative business development."

"The immigration laws should also continue to reunify families and encourage individuals and businesses to stay and develop new technologies in the US rather than abroad," Peshawaria added.

"There is a need to avoid static caps on key H1B visas as well as employment-based permanent resident numbers."

"Employers and agricultural workers should also be allowed to hire foreign workers if US workers are not available and procedures for such hiring should be streamlined so that there is not so much fluctuation in the rules from time to time. We realise that it's not easy -- high passions are involved in immigration reform."

Picture: A rally for immigration reform near the White House

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Ritu Jha in San Fransisco