Immigration bill: How would reform measure affect those in deportation proceedings?

What would the immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate yesterday mean for undocumented immigrants who are already in deportation proceedings -- such as those featured in our cover story, "Out of the Shadows"?

According to the office of Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, who is one of the "Gang of Eight," those who are in the process of deportation would be able to apply for the same temporary legal status as other immigrants as long as they meet the criteria.

The bill would create a thirteen-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. on or before December 31, 2011 and who meet eligibility criteria. Several things could make a person ineligible: Those who have been convicted of a felony, three or more misdemeanors or a host of other crimes (the full list is below) would not qualify to become a "registered provisional immigrant," or RPI.

After ten years as a registered provisional immigrant, a person who paid a series of fines and fees, passed a background check and proved that he or she held a job, among other requirements, could apply to become a legal permanent resident. After three more years and another round of fees, fines and requirements, that person could apply for citizenship.

Bennet spokesman Adam Bozzi sends us this information about how the bill would apply to those already in deportation proceedings -- and those who've already been deported:

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"Individuals with removal orders will be permitted to apply for RPI status, as will aliens currently in removal proceedings. To qualify, those individuals must complete the exact same eligibility criteria as individuals not in proceedings," he writes in an e-mail.

"Individuals outside of the United States who were previously here before December 31, 2011 and were deported for non-criminal reasons can apply to re-enter the United States in RPI status if they are the spouse of or parent of...a United States citizen or lawful permanent resident, or are a childhood arrival who is eligible for the DREAM Act."

The list of factors that would make a person ineligible for registered provisional immigrant status are long. Here it is, courtesy of Bozzi:

Criminal bars to RPI eligibility include:

  • Any felony (other than state or local status-based or immigration offenses);
  • An aggravated felony under INA §101(a)(43);
  • Three or more misdemeanors (other than minor traffic offenses or state/local status-based or immigration offenses) where conviction occurred on different dates;
  • Conviction or participation in a criminal street gang;
  • Foreign offenses (except purely political offenses) that would render the person inadmissible or deportable if committed in the U.S., with certain exceptions; and
  • Unlawful voting.

Grounds of inadmissibility for RPI applicants include:

  • Crimes involving moral turpitude;
  • Controlled substance violations;
  • Two or more criminal convictions;
  • Drug trafficking;
  • Prostitution and procuring a prostitute;
  • Criminal activity where the person has asserted immunity;
  • Violators of religious freedom;
  • Human trafficking;
  • Money laundering;
  • National security grounds, including espionage;
  • Terrorists and terrorist activities;
  • Nazis and members of a totalitarian party;
  • Polygamy;
  • Child abductors;
  • A misrepresentation related to RPI application;
  • Immigrant smugglers;
  • Draft evaders;
  • Habitual drunk drivers;
  • Criminal street gang participants;
  • Stalking;
  • Violating a protection order;
  • Child abuse, child neglect or child abandonment;
  • Enhanced passport trafficking and immigration document fraud offenses; and
  • Failure to comply with a request for biometrics.

So what do local leaders and advocates think of the bill?

Continue for local reaction to the bill. Gerardo Noriega, the 22-year-old from Aurora who was featured in our cover story and who was able to stop his deportation, believes the bill is a "step forward" that comes with "some very big sacrifices." The biggest, he says, is the $38 billion in increased security at the border, which was added to make the bill more appealing to House Republicans. "I still worry that it's changed so much around the border and it's throwing a lot of money to the border and making it more militarized," Noriega says.

As the bill moves from the Senate to the House, Noriega says he hopes the parts that he sees as positive stay intact. "Hopefully, they don't want to change the path to citizenship," he says.

Noriega is already on that path, thanks to a petition filed by his mother. But young immigrants like him -- called "dreamers" because of the DREAM Act, which would have provided legal status to immigrants who came here as children and went on to college or the military -- would be offered an expedited path to citizenship under the Senate bill. It would shorten to five years the time that an immigrant who entered the U.S. before they were sixteen and who completed high school and at least two years of college or four years of military service and who earned RPI status would have to wait to apply for legal permanent residency and citizenship.

Liz Hamel, an organizer with the Aurora-based Rights for All People, says her organization has chosen to support the bill "even though it's not ideally what we would want." Like Noriega, Hamel is concerned about the increased border security. She also feels that the path to citizenship is too long and studded with obstacles that could disqualify deserving immigrants. For example, she says, "There's a requirement for how long you've been employed. For folks who have to work day-by-day, it's going to be hard to prove that."

Jennifer Piper, the interfaith organizer for the American Friends Service Committee in Colorado, feels similarly. "We appreciate that there is a path to citizenship," she says. "That being said, there are so many barriers along that path that a quarter to half the people here will end up qualifying in the end for citizenship."

As for the relief the bill would offer to those already in deportation proceedings, Piper worries it wouldn't come quickly enough. "It will take a while for a process to be set up to apply for RPI," she says. "So whether you're still around at that point is the big question."

This morning, local law enforcement, faith and business leaders, including former Denver Mayor Bill Vidal, met at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce to discuss immigration reform with a staffer from Bennet's office. (Bennet was scheduled to participate in the roundtable but his plane was delayed.)

Continue for more reaction from local business and faith leaders. The event was sponsored by Bibles, Badges and Business for Immigration Reform, a national network "working together to educate and support members of Congress as they consider reforms to our immigration system." After the roundtable discussion, which was closed to the press, a few participants spoke to Westword.

"There was a great amount of concentration on the history of our country, of welcoming immigrants, of seeing immigrants as an asset, not a liability..and that this is our opportunity to make a more welcoming ambiance to really good people who are desperately coming to this country in search of a better life," Vidal says of the discussion.

The group discussed the importance of border security from a law enforcement perspective, especially when it comes to keeping criminals out of the country, Vidal says. Participants also discussed how immigrants help provide a robust workforce and how today's aging society needs young, energetic youth with an entrepreneurial spirit, he says.

"The conclusion was, we all need to stay at the table, we need to work at it, but that we're supportive of having immigration reform and that that would benefit us certainly as human beings first and as Coloradans, as well," says Vidal, who was there representing the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and is himself an immigrant from Cuba.

"Everything that I am is as a result of when I was ten years old, this country opened the door to me," he says. "It's difficult immigrating, believe me -- the culture shock, the language barrier.... Yet had that door not been opened, had I had to live in the shadows -- I mean, I became the 44th mayor of Denver."

Among the participants were county sheriffs, businesspeople and representatives from the Christian, Catholic and Jewish faiths. Danny Carroll, a professor of the Old Testament at the Denver Seminary, was there representing Evangelicals, who he says are coming forward across the country to support immigration reform.

Carroll, whose mother immigrated from Guatemala, worships at a church in Aurora that's attended by undocumented immigrants. He, too, says the bill is a step in the right direction. "It just gives them hope, for their children and for themselves," he says of immigrants. "They've told me, they've said, 'Just give us a way forward. If it's paying fines, if it's whatever, just give us a way.' It's not a perfect way, but politics is never perfect."

More from our Immigration archive: "Michael Bennet on Group of Eight's introduction of massive immigration bill."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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