Bill has hurdles to pass, but plans begin for immigrant legalization

Two Guatemalan immigrants embrace after becoming U.S. citizens in 1996 during a naturalization ceremony held at a Catholic church in Hyattsville, Md. Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., known as CLINIC, was created 25 years ago to support Catholic a gencies helping millions of people legalize their status following the 1986 passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander)
Two Guatemalan immigrants embrace after becoming U.S. citizens in 1996 during a naturalization ceremony held at a Catholic church in Hyattsville, Md. Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., known as CLINIC, was created 25 years ago to support Catholic a gencies helping millions of people legalize their status following the 1986 passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander)

ARLINGTON, Va. (CNS) — Comprehensive immigration reform legislation barely cleared its first hurdle in Congress in May with the approval of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., known as CLINIC, is already gearing up to help a potential pool of 11 million people apply for legalization.

At a May 21-24 annual conference sponsored by CLINIC, a subtext of excitement for what might lay ahead hung over the gathering of hundreds of attorneys and legal services workers. Amid workshops on technical legal topics such as adjustment of status, types of special visas and affidavits of support, a recurring theme for speakers and participants was how to get ready for “CIR,” as they refer to comprehensive immigration reform.

Even Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that would oversee any process of legalization for undocumented immigrants, said at a plenary session that his staff is already working on preparations, such as how to reach potential applicants — booths in libraries? workshops in churches? vans leased to drive to rural areas?

On the CLINIC end, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University has been commissioned to estimate of the number of people in each diocese who lack legal immigration status, said Don Kerwin, a former director of CLINIC who currently is director of the Center for Migration Studies.

In the plenary session of CLINIC’s annual convening, Kerwin said the CARA study is intended to help dioceses figure out what resources may be needed to help immigrants participate in a legalization process that is a key part of the Senate bill, S. 744.

Kerwin said the study could be a useful tool for immigration legal services agencies to seek funding to begin preparations, for starters. Around the room, attorneys and staff members of agencies raised questions about access, such as whether the application process would use an electronic database system compatible with what they already use, and whether people who prefer to apply using only a paper process would be able to do so.

In response to questions from the audience, Mayorkas said his agency is using the ongoing processing of applications for Deferred Action for Childhood Immigrants, or DACA, as a template for a bigger immigration reform.

DACA is an administration program under which certain undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before their 16th birthday and who meet criteria including for education and clean background checks may apply for deferral of deportation. Approval includes a work permit and ability to obtain a Social Security card. About 500,000 people have applied for the status since it was created in August. Of those, just under 300,000 have been approved and about 2,000 have been denied.

Mayorkas said the fast timetable under which DACA was implemented — it was announced last June and his agency began accepting applications in August — was “a test of our capacity to implement something very quickly. This was on a much smaller scale but much faster.”

As many as 1.7 million people are estimated to be potential applicants for DACA, over a multiyear period. The Senate bill’s legalization provisions, as currently worded, would be open to immigrants who arrived in the United States before 2012, out of an undocumented population estimated at 11 million. The bill would give federal agencies a year after it is signed into law to implement it.

“We need a year,” Mayorkas said. “If you watch the regulatory process, one year is the speed of lightning.”

Other questions his agency is considering include “should we be leasing facilities or leasing vans to drive to rural areas? Should we be setting up booths in libraries and grocery stores?”

An existing program which brings Citizenship and Immigration Services staff to rural areas in vans has been quite successful, Mayorkas said, and he expects something similar will be in place for legalization.

S. 744 is expected to come to the Senate floor for amendments, debate and vote perhaps as soon as this month. A House bill is being written by a bipartisan panel of eight members, but its details have not been released.

A second plenary session discussed the details of S. 744 and touched on steps that can be taken now to prepare for potential passage.

Michelle Sardone of the CLINIC staff said a key point to emphasize among communities of immigrants is that there is no reform law yet, although some attorneys seem to be advertising that they will help people get legalized under the new law.

Sardone said social service agencies and even parishes can take some steps now, including: plan for community education about the bill; appoint a coordinator; reach out to potential sources of funding for new services; form partnerships with other community groups so as to complement rather than unnecessarily duplicate services being offered, and start recruiting volunteers.

And a useful approach for many of those steps, Sardone said, is to tell stories of immigrants and how they came to be in their situations.

“Remind the community that this is about real people,” she said.

By Patricia Zapor Catholic News Service