A way forward for immigration reform


Take the case of Lucy Sanchez. (All clients’ names have been changed.)  Lucy was brought to the United States from Ecuador illegally as a six-year-old by her parents. The Sanchez were part of the wave of foreign workers who came to the US during the economic boom of the nineties and ended up staying and working here illegally.

Lucy excelled at the local public high school, scored astronomic numbers on the SATs, and at seventeen, was accepted with a full scholarship at one of the country’s top universities. Ostensibly, Lucy is a normal and very bright American high school student. She has no memory of her native Ecuador and was on the threshold of a great future. However, there is a problem. Lucy is an illegal alien. This came as much of a shock to her as it did to the university’s admission office.  Like many illegal aliens, Lucy’s parents never explained to their daughter their precarious status in this country. Over the years, they had hoped against hope for some kind of solution or path to becoming American citizens.


Lucy could not take up her scholarship and was working a minimum wage job at a fast food restaurant, experiencing severe depression.  In a few years, she could have been your or my cardiologist, or a famous scientist. There was nothing that I, as an Immigration lawyer, could do for Lucy, when I was consulted by her parents. The law simply does not provide any relief for her.

Lucy’s parents worked two jobs: her father in a factory and driving a cab at night, her mother as a nurse’s aid and cleaning offices at night.  Although Lucy’s parents have held jobs that are essential to the local economy for more than eleven years, the present immigration system does not provide them and their children with any option for becoming legal. One of Lucy’s teachers was even willing to adopt Lucy if that would allow her to become an American citizen and take up her scholarship. Unfortunately, that was not an option. Even being adopted by an American citizen would not have made her an American citizen. (Only if the adopted child is under sixteen and adopted directly from a foreign country, will the child be able to claim American citizenship.)

Lucy, along with millions of other children of illegal aliens, are innocent victims. Many were brought to this country by their parents as young children, some even as infants. Most are assimilated and do not remember their native country and in some cases even the language. Approximately 65,000 students who graduated from US high schools this year are illegal aliens (according to Dream Act Portal, www.dreamact.info).

The DREAM Act, originally introduced in the US Senate in 2001 by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and reintroduced by Senator Durbin and Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) in 2009, would provide legal status for many of the children who are here illegally through no fault of their own. Children who entered the US before the age of 16 (and have lived here for at least five years) would be given a conditional residence status that could eventually lead to US citizenship. All previous versions of this bill have so far died in Congress. And on September 21, 2010, the DREAM Act, tacked onto a military spending bill, was again blocked by Republicans who argued that the bill had no relation to defense. (Senator Durbin immediately reintroduced the DREAM Act as a stand alone bill the following day.) Republicans seem bent on making sure that no immigration legislation is passed. But now is the time to stop the political games and pass the DREAM Act as part of a complete overhaul.

The knee-jerk response of opposing any immigration reform bill because it might reward illegal aliens with “amnesty” (which supposedly perpetuates and attracts more illegal immigration) misses the point. We cannot pretend that 12 million people are not here, or do not exist.  Most of them, like the Sanchez, work, have families (some of whom are American citizens), and live normal lives.

Providing a path to citizenship for these millions is not only a humanitarian approach but a practical one. It will bring people out of the shadows and increase our security, and tax and social security revenue. According to Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration in the US, “in order to have fully effective law enforcement, we need Congress to create the legal foundation for bringing the millions of illegal immigrants in this country out of the shadows…. We will never have fully effective law enforcement or national security as long as so many millions remain in the shadows.” (November 13, 2009, address to the Center for American Progress).  

Unlike in previous amnesties, people will have to admit that they broke the law, pay fines and any back taxes and penalties owed. They will have to learn English and get to the back of the citizenship line.  Criminal background checks would identify those who should be deported. It would not only protect these immigrant workers from abuse by unscrupulous employers, but also protect American workers who would not have to compete with low or sub minimum wage labor. Once legal, workers can join unions.