By Marianna Levine
It was clear from the start that several audience members at a panel discussion last Thursday on immigration were not immigrants themselves. They were there as concerned residents who came with their own opinions on immigration they hoped to be able to air during the discussion. However, the event’s organizers, Organizacion Latino Americana’s (OLA), as well as the discussion’s moderator, Joachim Mendez created some ground rules he introduced with a joke to dispel the already apparent tensions, “If you have something you want to say we’ll have a beer later. If you have a question then raise your hand.” He stressed this was an informational meeting and not a debate.
Still the first person to speak was an woman from Southampton who expressed fear that people who were born and raised on Long Island were being treated like outsiders rather than insiders.
“We are American citizens, and we’ve welcomed an international community here for over 45 years. Can we be included in this dialogue please?” To which Mendez responded, “(the welcoming has occurred for) more like a couple hundred years. And we shouldn’t get into this now. I will not allow it. If you don’t have a question we’ll move on.”
From then on there were a plethora of questions from both local business owners as well as immigrants asked in both Spanish and English, and always translated for all to understand. Most questions concerned small business owners and the need for work visas and driver’s licenses for their workers, the actual naturalization process, and most urgently what was occurring with immigration reform in Washington D.C.
The panel, held at the Bridgehampton National Bank meeting room in Bridgehampton, included immigration attorneys Millicent Clarke and Allen Kaye (of the American Immigration Lawyers Association), as well as the Executive Director of the Long Island Immigration Alliance Luis Velenzuela, and Congressman Tim Bishop.
The immigration lawyers fielded the questions regarding the immigration process, often cautioning audience members to be wary of so-called lawyers who promise to put aside tax money for the future for undocumented workers or who make any easy promises about the naturalization process. Both Clarke and Kaye suggested waiting for immigration reform prior to starting any paperwork.
Kaye explained that there are basically only three ways to get a Green Card in the United States. You can either get one through an employer, or by marrying or being related to a citizen, or you can have resided here illegally for over ten years and take your chances before a judge in court. He then explained that trying to get a Green Card properly as an undocumented person almost always means, “You’re asking to be deported.”
Congressman Tim Bishop arrived soon after this discussion began, and addressed questions on comprehensive immigration reform. An audience member asked in frustration, “What is wrong with getting in line and waiting?” To which Congressman Bishop replied, “The fundamental problem is that the current system is a broken system that simply doesn’t work. I think we can all agree that it isn’t working. This discussion is a symptom of the fact that the system is broken. We don’t have a visa system that works. We have people who stand in line for 5 to 20 years and nothing happens.” He also added that, “No solutions can come from the vantage point of anger. I believe we should make a good faith effort to put our differences aside and try to bring people together.”
Bishop explained the new comprehensive immigration reform would come about in four parts in something referred to as the “Strive Act.” First the U.S. government would need to intensify border protection, and crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers. Thereafter the government would construct a visa program that actually worked and reflected the needs of our country and business owners. Bishop explained this would include a simplified agricultural work visa. He then noted that the fourth aspect of this plan is the most controversial, since it would create a path to legalization for those who are currently in the U.S. without proper documentation.
“Undocumented workers would be given a work visa as long as they have a clean record for about 11 or 12 years,” said Bishop. “They would have to pay a fine and back taxes on the money they earned off the books. They would have to learn English and civics and maintain a clean record for that period. After that they would be granted permanent residency.”
Asked when immigration reform would be passed, Bishop answered, “I believe it will be considered sometime in June or September. President Obama has made it very clear he supports comprehensive immigration reform.” He also said that he guessed the bill had a better than 50/50 chance of passing this year.