Plans for immigration reform that were shelved two years ago by Congress, and a lack of available work visas, topped the concerns of more than 100 residents who turned out for a forum on immigration in Bridgehampton on Thursday, January 29.
Long Island Immigrant Alliance Executive Director Luis Valenzuela, immigration attorneys Millicent Clark and Allen Kaye and U.S. Representative Tim Bishop fielded questions for more than three hours from a crowd that aired many pro-immigrant concerns. The panelists offered nitty-gritty technical details about the United States’ current stance toward immigrants.
The event was held in the Bridgehampton National Bank’s community room and was organized by Organizacion Latino Americana (OLA).
Many of the questions were lobbed at Mr. Bishop, who said that Congress is planning to tackle immigration reform again in the second half of 2009. A four-part bill, originally proposed by Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy in 2005, would crack down on employers who hire illegal workers; make more H2B seasonal work visa and agricultural visas available; intensify border protection and provide a path to earned legalization for people who are currently in the country illegally.
“This is the part some people describe as ‘amnesty,’” said Mr. Bishop of the last section of the bill. “It is not amnesty. Immigrants with a clean record would have to pay a fine and back taxes on money they earned off the books, would have to learn English and civics and would have to maintain a clean record.” He said that immigrants would be granted permanent residency status only after they’d completed those requirements, which could take 10 to 12 years.
Natalia Saavedra, a member of OLA’s Younger Generation group, asked Mr. Bishop if what she called the “Dream Act” would be passed. It would treat students as legal residents if they entered the United States with their parents before they were six years old, for the purpose of college admissions and financial aid.
Mr. Bishop said that the “Dream Act” is included in the comprehensive immigration reform bill.
Melinda Rubin, an immigration attorney from Hampton Bays, said that she is concerned that employers on the East End who want to hire immigrants this summer will have a harder time doing so this year because Immigration and Customs Enforcement ran out of H2B visas for 2009 on January 7.
“There are people in Montauk who are going to be hurting badly,” said Ms. Rubin. “Americans lost their companies because of this.”
Mr. Bishop said that the departments of Labor and Homeland Security will likely add more visas administratively instead of waiting for Congress to pass a law adding new visas, as it did in 2008.
Ms. Clark and Mr. Kaye warned attendees that many immigration lawyers get a lot of money out of illegal immigrants without telling them straight that they cannot get a green card because of the way they entered the country.
“When you come to an attorney who tells the truth, listen,” said Ms. Clark. “Don’t keep going to get the answer you want.”
Mr. Kaye added that it is possible for illegal immigrants to get a green card if they can show that not having one would cause an extreme hardship to a relative in the United States. But they have to go to their home countries to apply; and if they left, they might not be allowed back. It “is like putting your head in a lion’s mouth,” he said.
“Don’t do that,” he said. “Don’t go asking for a deportation proceeding.”
Early in the meeting, Southampton resident Elaine Kahn stood up to say that she believed immigration advocates were shutting out of the discussion those people who were concerned about their own community’s future.
“We are American citizens,” she said. “We don’t want to be treated as outsiders.” No one answered her. The panelists said they would not respond because her questions were not addressed to the panel. Another member of the audience who sat with a small group that surrounded Ms. Kahn and nodded in agreement with her statements was not called on after holding up his hand for nearly an hour. He walked out of the meeting.
“Really I am offended,” said Ms. Kahn as she walked out of the meeting before it had ended. “I am absolutely appalled at the lack of respect for citizens.”