A maze of forms, years of waiting and fear of deportation is a situation undocumented immigrants and those seeking to become American citizens or obtain their green cards face every day.
International High School, an academy high school in Paterson focused on multiculturalism and language diversity, was the host for a forum on the subject of immigration reform by Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-8) on May 2. A few weeks earlier, eight U.S. senators released proposed legislation to modify the existing immigration system. The bill, drafted by the Democrat-controlled Senate, promises to go through many changes, such as when the Republican-controlled House proposes its own version, before going up for a vote by Congress.
Pascrell outlined his own aspirations for the Senate's legislation, dubbed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.
"This is just the beginning," Pascrell said, recalling his own status as the son of Italian immigrants. The congressman said his intentions are to reform the system, calling it "broken," to enhance national security and to keep those undocumented workers from being taken advantage of, without them stepping ahead of those seeking to stay in America through legal means, calling it "restoring rule of law."
The proposed legislation incorporates four categories of changes, referred to as titles, broken down by intention: border security, legalization for undocumented immigrants/ framework for future legal immigration, interior enforcement and reforms visa programs.
"If you come into this country, the country has the right to know you're here," Pascrell said. "We can no longer continue the system of ignoring it, we have the right to defense and to protect ourselves."
Under the proposal, Homeland Security would be required to develop a comprehensive border security strategy and strategy for the southern border within six months before the Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status program begins, appropriating $3 billion for technology, personnel and other resources. The plan must be in operation before RPI's can apply for adjusting their status, a fencing plan must be implemented, e-verify - an electronic means of verifying employees legally able to work in the U.S.- must be operational and a biographic entry-exit system at air and seaports must be up and running, all considered "triggers" to begin the remaining portions of the plan, explained immigration lawyer and former chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Jerry Gonzalez.
Gonzalez said there will be no more "off the books" employment of immigrants, which the congressman added contributes to abuse of workers via unfair wages and unsafe working conditions.
Citing a statistic from the Center for American Progress, Pascrell said 63 percent of undocumented people have been living in the states for a decade or longer as of 2010.
The reforms won't be amnesty, especially considering that the undocumented will be required to pay back taxes, Pascrell said.
A member of the "gang of eight" that introduced the Senate draft, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) called the bill a "game changer for millions of immigrants, for DREAMers, and for those hoping to build a better life in America for themselves and their families." Politics and forms aside, there's also a human side to the nation's immigration policies.
Addressing the congressman, Paterson student Diosmary Rodriguez asked if the senate's version would help reunite her with her mother. Her mother returned to the Dominican Republic after losing her residency in the states three years ago.
"We're working hard for her to come here," Rodriguez said.
Under the law, she as a citizen has to wait until she's 21, four more years from now, to sponsor her mother's application. While her father is here, "a mother is still a mother. It's been a struggle without her, especially since this is the time I need her most now."
A Junior ROTC member who will be joining the ROTC when she enrolls at Rutgers University next year, Rodriguez recalled she lived in the Dominican Republic for two years, choosing to come back to America.
Unfortunately, Pascrell said, the proposed changes don't change the age a citizen can sponsor a relative, such as parent or sibling, to immigrate to the U.S. He spoke about how children are put into these situations through no fault of their own.
As it exists now, the rule breaks up families, David Toledo said. A spokesperson for thePassaic County Coalition for Immigrant Rights (PCCIR), Toledo immigrated to America from Peru. His mother filled out the paperwork in 1996, allowing him to become a permanent resident after five years of processing. Today, he lives in Clifton.
Toledo recalled talking to teens and kids through his case management at the coalition who've threatened suicide at the prospect of losing their parents to deportation, afraid of being forced to live in foster homes or with extended family, sometimes in unsafe conditions. In a way, the government's ability to separate a parent and child is an indirect form of child abuse, he said.
"I want to see this bill pass to bring people out of the shadows," Toledo said, speaking of the undocumented population.
According to Pascrell, between 11 million and 12 million people in the U.S. are undocumented.
The PCCIR conducted a survey of labors to find out what they wanted most out of the changes. Their answer: access to work permits, the ability to provide for their families without fear of their employers, Toledo said.
"This bill allows those people, our brothers and sisters, to work without any problems," becoming residents in a few years if they wanted to pursue that road, he said. Many times workers are abused or suffer sexual harassment at the hands of employers, who threaten to have them deported for speaking up, Toledo said.
In Rutherford, the Gainville Learning Center offers a number of services for those looking for assistance in coming to America to learn, and for locals to be exposed to new cultures and to learn new languages. Maggie Barros is a program coordinator who teaches Spanish to the center's younger students. She describes her own upbringing as an immigration success story.
Her mother, Anamaria Casanga, came to America in the late 1960's from Chile. While in the states she met her husband, also a Chilean native. A one-time fisherman who knew the ports, together they returned to Chile to open a small exporting business. Casanga returned stateside intending to stay temporarily to work, but things changed. She went on to take ESL for the workplace, becoming an administrative assistant for an economies agency in New York. Living in New York City and later Passaic, Barros was raised by her mother as a single parent.
"I'm really lucky from all my parents' hard work," Barros said. "I've experienced the best of both worlds." She learned about the culture of Chile and the language, while at the same time appreciating all America had to offer. "We [her and her siblings] went on to graduate college; I'm really glad my mother got to see that. She worked hard for us to have a better life."
Now Casanga is retired and looking to join her brother, Barros uncle, who's hoping to come to America to live with his siblings.
Barros hopes more immigrants visit the Gainville Learning Center on Ames Avenue to learn what options are available to them.