11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
The Arab American Institute and Muslim Public Affairs Council co-hosted an immigration reform town hall at the Muslim Community Center on October 27, 2013. Youmna Ansar, an organizer with the Education Initiative at the Muslim Community Center (MCC) opened the meeting with Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).
The discussion centered on how the broken immigration system can be fixed. Van Hollen is a Member of the House Budget Committee and a leading Democrat in the House of Representatives who recently demonstrated his political mettle in Congress during the government shutdown with his “parliamentary inquiry” on the house floor. He discussed S744, the comprehensive immigration reform bill which passed through the Senate, but has yet to be debated in the House of Representatives.
Congressman Van Hollen, who was born in Karachi, Pakistan, grew up in the Indian Subcontinent where his father was in the Foreign Service and his mother the head of CIA intelligence of South Asia, emphasized the contribution of immigrants to the potential of the nation. “Look at Montgomery County as a lens through which to see how immigration has strengthened this community,” he said. The Congressman also told the audience that the House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have refused to bring the bill to vote. Recently, the Democrats got their first Republican vote from a representative from California, “If we had a vote, it would pass the House; the more Republicans sign on to the [immigration reform] bill, the more pressure we will bring to bear on the Speaker,” said the Congressman.
A report by American Action Network, a conservative think tank, shows the Senate's immigration bill would create an average of 14,000 jobs per congressional district in the next decade. In Maryland, 51,829 jobs in Maryland would be created and 66,274 jobs in Virginia. Many Republican think tanks and leaders are pushing for the bill based on the economic repercussions – an $832 billion increase in the gross domestic product.
There are issues with the bipartisan bill as it stands today, namely racial profiling, wasteful appropriation to border security, elimination of diversity visas, and elimination of categories of family unification visas. Merit based visas have increased. The message being too sent to the Muslim community is get involved and get your concerns heard.
Senator Lindsey Graham’s provision of extra initial screening of immigrants from countries where there have been threats to the United Stand has “very undefined and unclear” standards, said Van Hollen, and could open the door to racial profiling. The fact that this language got into the bill is also problematic. “We should be vigilant that it is not abused,” said the Congressman.
Saif Inam, Policy Analyst at MPAC said immigration reform affects all people in the US, two-thirds of American Muslims are immigrants. Inam said Muslims should support immigration reform based on their history; learning lessons from the stories of Muhajirun and the compassion that was shown to them.
The bill currently does contains a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and opens the door for new immigrants. Republicans want to pass the bill in a piece meal fashion rather than pass one all encompassing bill, said the Congressman.
AAI Government Relation Manager Yasmin Taif introduced Tyler Moran, the Deputy Director for Immigration Policy for the White House Domestic Policy Council.
The audience heard from Moran; she has worked on all major immigration bills over the last 15 years. Moran stressed that immigration reform was a top priority for President Obama. She said that even though the President would prefer to sign the whole bill if it came to his desk, he was willing to take some reform over the status quo. President Obama’s office representative told the audience that there was no ‘bright line’ drawn by the President. “He wants to see what the Republicans come up with,” said Moran.
Immigration attorney Hassan Ahmed from Virginia deals with many who are in the process of filing their immigration paper work. He senses misconceptions among many of the people who have been waiting in line and came into the country legally. Moran told the audience that there is no jumping in line, but a new line is being created for those where there was none before.
Undocumented immigrants will be on a 13 year road to citizenship; they will have to file for provisional status to work and travel, if they were in the country before 2011, pay fines and fees and then wait 5 years. After 5 years they will get another provisional status. After ten years, they will be able to file for a green card, and eventually two years after that they will be able to apply for citizenship.
Kamal Essaheb, Immigration Policy Attorney with the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) spoke about his first encounter with immigration law as a young Moroccan immigrant, on a cold winter day at 26 Federal Plaza in New York City – the 2001 INS special registration program, NSEERS. “We had to wait for hours to get into building. Then we were rounded up in a large cell. We begged to use the bathroom,” he said. He described a couple of hundred brown men from Arab and Muslim countries not knowing what to expect: mugshots followed, they were interrogated by men in uniforms who weren’t very nice who asked where do you pray, do you know any terrorists, and other personal questions. This promoted him to study immigration law.
Immigration reform is more than just the path to citizenship, it is about what society looks like down the road. Essaheb stated that provisions in Senate Bill prohibits use of race and ethnicity for law enforcement, but does not prohibit the use of religion to conduct law enforcement.
The “Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act,” commonly known as the SAFE Act is a bill that the House Judiciary Committee also passed in June. The SAFE Act is a bill that could pose difficulties for immigrants said Essaheb. The bill criminalizes being in the country without legal status, such as overstaying a visa. It also empowers state and local police and potentially turns them into immigration agents. According to the NILC, “the SAFE Act’s single-minded focus on immigration enforcement will increase detentions and deportations, and will create an environment of rampant racial profiling and unconstitutional detentions without fixing the immigration system’s problems.”
“Make sure you let your member of Congress know that this is an important issue to you, especially the racial profiling concerns and educate yourself about this issue,” advised Essaheb.