Saturday, February 10, 2007
From The Miami Herald…
Reform, civil rights compared
The administration expects Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, a measure that a top immigration official called historic.
BY ALFONSO CHARDY AND NIALA BOODHOO
President Bush’s temporary worker proposal has a better chance of passing in Congress this year, and if it does, it will be as significant a milestone in U.S. history as the civil rights movement, the head of the immigration and citizenship agency said Friday.
“Immigration, as we all know, is the hot-button domestic issue of the day,” Emilio Gonzalez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. “And I’ll go one step further and I’ll tell you that immigration reform is probably as important as the civil rights movement was back in the ‘60s.”
Gonzalez’s remarks marked the first time a senior-level federal immigration official has cast the effort to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants as an historic endeavor. Gonzalez’s statements also amounted to the strongest indication yet that the administration expects Congress will pass a measure to legalize many of the nation’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants.
Gonzalez said he had met Thursday afternoon with President Bush, and “I can tell you that he’s as committed to comprehensive reform as he’s always been.”
Efforts to rewrite immigration law failed last year when the House and Senate passed radically different bills that never were reconciled.
Gonzalez, a Cuban American who arrived in the United States when he was 4 years old after his parents fled the communist island, would lead the effort to process work permits for the millions of undocumented immigrants who would be allowed to apply for status if Congress approves a legalization bill.
APPLICATION FEE HIKE
USCIS considers applications for asylum, citizenship, green cards and work permits. Gonzalez recently announced a proposal for hefty application filing fee increases in a bid, he says, to improve and modernize service and speed up document delivery.
Members of Congress have criticized the proposed fee hikes and the chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship has asked Gonzalez to appear before her Wednesday to defend the increase.
“I’m entirely opposed to the doubling of citizenship fees,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., has suggested that Congress should pony up some of the money.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Friday that the fee increase has been factored into the agency's budget already and that blocking it “would be a big problem for this Congress. Either we would have to go back to the days of backlog, or we would have to decide to hire fewer border patrols or have less technology,” he said before the House Homeland Security Committee.
Many businesses may not be prepared for the impending changes comprehensive reform will bring. Very few have participated in the government’s voluntary Web-based program, called Basic Pilot, to verify workers’ status.
Most proposals for immigration reform call for new laws that would mandate, for example, that companies participate in some sort of federal employment verification program. The only requirement employers currently have is to fill out an I-9 form.
Miami-based corporate immigration lawyer Jorge Lopez thinks few South Florida employers are prepared for the new laws.
“It’s not because they don’t want to participate,” said Lopez, a partner with Jackson Lewis who participated in an afternoon discussion with Wal-Mart’s in-house immigration lawyer. “The bottom line is, they’re not sure what it’s all about.”
In answers to questions after his speech, Gonzalez said he believed that prospects for passage of immigration reform in Congress were “much better this year than last year” because the administration is working with Democrats and Republicans in Congress on a compromise that he did not outline.
After the session, Gonzalez explained why he compared immigration reform to the civil rights movement.
“The changes would be almost as dramatic,” he told The Miami Herald. “We are talking about how we treat 12 million people that are here, that are in the shadows … This is a comprehensive reform that if enacted is going to change the complexity of America, change what America looks like. It’s going to say a lot about us.”
Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington.