Category Archives: Immigration Reform

California’s Missteps in Designing Drivers’ Licenses for the Undocumented

freewayNeed an example of the ambiguous, half-recognized place that undocumented persons hold in the U.S. today? Look no farther than reports of California officials’ recent efforts to come up with a design for a drivers’ license, to be available to undocumented residents of this state under the terms of a new law passed last year.

The designers were, in essence, tasked with creating a card that would be distinctly different from the drivers’ license carried by ordinary residents—which, in the absence of a national identity document, is often seen as the practical equivalent to a national identity document—but not a card that screams, “Illegal alien!” to anyone who might then be prompted toward discrimination and harassment.

The first try unfortunately failed to pass muster with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The feds deemed California’s card design, which had the code “DP” (for “driver’s privilege” rather than “driver’s license”) on the front, and the words “This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes” on the back, to be too subtle. They want the latter wording moved to the front.

So, it’s back to the drawing board for the designers. I don’t envy them this task. They’re creating a card that represents layers of possible meaning, including, “I have an acknowledged place in this state, I have passed the driving exam, my rights have been recognized in other ways (such as that to attend public schools and be fairly treated by employers), but by the way, I don’t have lawful immigration status.”

Immigration reform, anyone?

“Anchor Babies” in the News: The Pregnancy Path to U.S. Citizenship

asianbabyEvery law seems to have unintended consequences. The original intent of granting citizenship to every baby born on U.S. soil (done within the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) was to avoid creating an underclass, particularly among people who were brought to the U.S. as slaves.

(Congress was responding to the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857, in which the U.S.  Supreme Court denied citizenship rights to freed slaves.)

Now, however, a cottage industry has seemingly developed to assist people from outside the U.S. — particularly from Asia — to come here on temporary visas in order to give birth to new little U.S. citizens.

The price tag for such “maternity hotel” services tends toward the tens of thousands of dollars. The fee covers travel and visa arrangements, medical care, and more. (See, for instance, “Giving birth in U.S. to get babies citizenship draws suspicion” and “In suburbs of L.A., a cottage industry of birth tourism” and “Chinese birth tourism booms in Southern California.”)

One such service reportedly advertises, “We guarantee that each baby can obtain a U.S. passport and related documents.” That’s not a hard guarantee to make, given the Constitutional backing!

Some of the reasons expectant parents give for wanting to give birth in the U.S. have immediate or short-term utility. For example, interviewees from China mentioned goals such as as circumventing that country’s one-child restrictions, or wanting to ensure that their child will be able to study in the U.S. or have the protection of the U.S. government in times of difficulty.

Other reasons, however, are remarkably long-term in scope. The families are creating an “anchor” for future U.S. immigration — and it’s one that can’t help them until the child turns 21.

To be clear, having a child who is a U.S. citizen does NOT provide any immediate rights to live or gain status in the United States. Only a U.S. citizen who is age 21 or over can petition his or her parents for U.S. lawful permanent residence (a green card). That application process alone will likely take at least a year.

What’s more, if the little citizens’ parents were to take a chance and attempt to remain in the U.S. illegally for the requisite 21 years, they’d become “inadmissible” — that is, ineligible for a green card — based on their history of unlawful presence here. (In fact, the “birth tourism” agencies likely warn the parents of this, since reports have it that they fly home soon after the births.)

There’s nothing in U.S. immigration law that expressly forbids birth tourism. Arguments could be made that the parents are committing visa fraud by claiming to enter as “tourists.” Still, even if the immigration enforcement authorities push this point, a finding that the parents’ committed visa fraud won’t negate the children’s status as citizens. (It will, however, make the parents inadmissible and unable to receive any U.S. visa or green card in the future.)

Whatever one might think of the practice of birth tourism, we’ve got to admire that level of long-term planning!

Immigration Scammers Love the Uncertainty About Immigration Reform

man tearing up agreementFollowing up on recent stories about the lawsuit against so-called “American Legal Services” for defrauding immigrants (discussed in my previous blog, “This Is News: Actual Enforcement Against Shady Immigration Consultants!”), the East Bay Express produced an interesting story titled “The American Immigration Nightmare.”

It gave broader coverage to the problem of sham lawyers and consultants defrauding undocumented immigrants in the East Bay and beyond, with promises of remedies that either don’t exist or aren’t available to the person seeking assistance.

The most alarming aspect of the story was the following: “‘I anticipate the amount of immigration-consulting fraud will go up dramatically,’ said [Oakland City Attorney Justin] Nishioka, noting the White House’s recent renewed efforts to enact immigration reforms.”

Scammers love uncertainty. They prey on people’s fear that if they don’t act quickly, they’ll miss the boat, or at least fall to the back of the line. Given the power of the rumor mill, this blog probably won’t reach the people it needs to, but let me say right here: Immigration reform has NOT passed (and probably won’t until 2014 if at all), there is no new way to get a green card yet, and you should never give money to someone you haven’t thoroughly checked out!

California Lawmakers Take Practical Approach to Treatment of Undocumented Immigrants

sanjoseAn estimated two-million plus undocumented immigrants live, work, study, and otherwise make their home in California.

So perhaps it’s fitting that the California legislature recently passed a number of bills (subsequently signed by Governor Jerry Brown) that seem designed to make sure that, as long as they’re here, the undocumented are not treated in ways that are either grossly unfair or lead to unfortunate or dangerous unintended consequences.

Here’s a brief summary of the new laws (click the links for details):

  • AB 4, which forbids law enforcement officials from detaining noncitizens beyond their release date on the basis of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hold, unless the person has actually been convicted of one of various crimes or meets certain specified conditions. (This seems designed to put a stop to the expense and absurdity of local law enforcement agencies serving as detention units for the federal government by holding undocumented immigrants even if the criminal charges against them were dismissed or were minor in nature.)
  • AB 35, which says that no one can charge fees for serving people applying for the immigration program known as “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (or DACA) unless they are either immigration consultants, attorneys, notaries public, or organizations that have received accreditation from the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals (B.I.A.); and even those who have received such accreditation cannot engage in price gouging.
  • AB 60, which makes undocumented California residents eligible for a drivers’ license upon providing satisfactory proof of identity and state residency. The license will contain a notation stating that it “does not establish eligibility for employment, voter registration, or public benefits,” and will contain the initials “DP” (Drivers Privilege) instead of “DL” (Drivers’ License).
  • AB 524, which specifies that threatening to report the immigration status or suspected immigration status of an person or family may be considered an inducement of fear sufficient to constitute extortion, and thus punishable under the California Penal Code.
  • AB 1024, which allows undocumented persons to be admitted to the California State Bar Association as attorneys, and therefore to practice law in this state.
  • AB 1159, which attempts to crack down on the practice of immigration law without a license, by imposing financial penalties on people who pose as attorneys, in particular by calling themselves “notarios” or other terms which have a more elevated meaning in other countries. The law specifies that the proceeds shall be used to help people damaged by such con artists, as well as to provide free legal advice concerning federal immigration reform.
  • SB 141, which requires community colleges and universities within the California state system to charge in-state, resident tuition to U.S. citizens who live in a foreign country because their parent or guardian was deported or voluntarily departed from the U. S., so long as they will be entering in their first year as matriculated students, can demonstrate financial need, lived in California immediately before moving abroad, attended a secondary school in California for at least three years, and intend to establish residency in California.
  • SB 150, which authorizes community college districts to charge only in-state, resident tuition to certain special part-time students, namely high schoolers who would benefit from advanced scholastic or vocational work, if they are non-citizens in financial need, or students from other states who had to move due to Hurricane Katrina.
  • SB 666, which creates criminal and civil penalties for attorneys and businesses that retaliate against employees and others on the basis of citizenship and immigration status or who report or threaten to report the suspected immigration status of a witness or party to a lawsuit because the person exercises a right related to employment.

In related news, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors recently passed an ordinance prohibiting law enforcement officials from holding for deportation noncitizens who have not been convicted of felonies or deemed public safety risks. (It’s called the “Due Process Ordinance for All on Civil Immigration Detainers.”) Mayor Lee is expected to sign it.

With Immigration Reform Comatose, At Least the Visa Lottery Remains!

enter to winAll reports seem to say that Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) — which looked to be as close to becoming a reality as any similar efforts have in recent years — hit a brick wall as soon as it was passed from the Senate to the House of Representatives. (Are we surprised?) The current forecast for action on the bill is “none.” Although that will leave many people disappointed — including many with close ties to the U.S., as in already living, working, and raising families here — there’s an odd silver lining.

A random assortment of people from around the world with little or no previous connection to the U.S. will continue to receive U.S. green cards through the diversity visa lottery, which CIR had put on the chopping block! Well, perhaps not completely random. Despite the “lottery” moniker, applicants must show that they have achieved a certain level of education. And they may need the wherewithal to hire an attorney to help complete the process if they win, because the State Department always declares more “winners” than it actually has visas, and it becomes a race to finish the process before the end of the relevant fiscal year. See the articles on the “Diversity Visa Lottery Green Cards” page of Nolo’s website for details — and to help avoid the eventual scams that will pop up as they do every year.

By the way, there’s another bright spot in this year’s lottery. Same-sex spouses will now be able to accompany the winners and receive a U.S. green card, provided their marriage is legally recognized in the country or jurisdiction where it took place.

Get ready: The application period opens October 1!

Fee Hikes an Overlooked Aspect of Proposed Immigration Reform

mex border fenceThe legislation being hammered out in the Senate right now contains some pretty expensive elements. Specifically, committing even more resources than have already been thrown at the project of turning the U.S. border with Mexico into an impenetrable barrier is going to cost big bucks. Some $40 billion, to be spent on new border security agents, new drones, new fencing, and so on.

And where will this money come from? Much media attention was devoted recently to a U.S. government report showing that, if the bill is passed, the U.S. government and economy will actually get a boost. New taxpayers will contribute to the system, more undocumented immigrants will start new businesses, and all will hum along happily.

But that shouldn’t obscure a basic reality of the legislation as it stands, containing a recent compromise amendment from Senators Corker, Hoeven, and others. As noted in a recent press release from the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association (AILA), the spending on this bill isn’t going to come from the taxes and economic activity generated by these hardworking immigrants. It looks, for all the world, like it’s going to come straight from the immigrants pockets, as fees when they file their applications for immigration benefits.

AILA explains, “a startling and little-publicized requirement of the amendment would be that all ‘mandatory enforcement expenditures under the Act’ would be funded not by appropriated funds but by additional fees charged to those petitioning through the regular, legal immigration process.”

How high could these fees go up? They’re already in the thousands of dollars for many applications.

The proposed amendment says not only, “the Secretary may adjust the amounts of the fees and penalties . . .  except for [certain] fines and penalties,” but “If the Secretary determines that adjusting the fees and penalties set out [above] will be insufficient or impractical to cover the costs of the mandatory enforcement expenditures in this Act, the Secretary may charge an additional surcharge on every immigrant and nonimmigrant petition filed with the Secretary in an amount designed to be the minimum proportional surcharge necessary to recover the annual mandatory enforcement expenditures in this legislation.”

Ouch! Sky’s the limit!

If you’re an immigrant who already has a path to a visa or green card, the best advice I can give is to make sure the process moves forward as quickly as possible, to win the race against time and this new legislation.

Proposed Immigration Bill Still Needs Provision for Gay and Lesbian Couples

double_rainbowThe current Senate draft of a comprehensive immigration reform bill contains provisions to help undocumented farmworkers and students, as well as would-be immigrants whose merits earn them a significant number of points — but nothing for gay and lesbians.

In particular, the draft doesn’t address the problem of gay and lesbian couples who are legally married under the laws of the particular U.S. state or foreign country where they registered or held a  ceremony, but nevertheless continue to be denied a marriage-based green card for the noncitizen spouse under U.S. immigration law. (The legal reason for that is the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which is awaiting an opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court.)

What’s the harm in this? According to testimony to the Senate Committee by Laura Lichter, President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), “more than 36,000 couples are affected by this form of discrimination, and nearly half of them are households raising children.” Lichter added that, “Many gay and lesbian Americans in binational relationships have aging parents and must make difficult decisions between managing their parents’ health or remaining with their partners. . . Many Fortune 500 companies have lost skilled Americans to foreign competitors because of this issue . . . For many, the limited options mean having to choose between unconscionable separation, a life without lawful immigration status, or relocating the entire family outside the U.S.”

The bill may may yet address such issues, however, according to reports from CQ Roll Call, via San Francisco’s Immigrant Legal Resource Center. The draft Senate bill is currently being scrutinized and marked up by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Several Democrats on the committee have stated that they intend to introduce amendments allowing U.S. citizens to petition for (sponsor) same-sex partners for visas in the same manner that they are legally allowed to utilize for opposite-sex spouses under existing law.

Whether those amendments will survive the entire process of turning the bill into law, however, is in doubt. Some experts believe that they will be removed again in the course of negotiations, in order to ensure the passage of the bill as a whole. Stay tuned . . . .

And by the way, the legal situation is a bit different for couples in which one has undergone sex reassignment surgery, as described in Nolo’s Q&A, “Can a transgender spouse obtain a green card based on marriage to a U.S. citizen?