With comprehensive immigration reform a real possibility this year, we look at how our broken system affects Colorado—and how things could come into focus in the near future.
Q&A: Laura Lichter
The local immigration attorney and president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association on the difficulties of legal immigration, the punitive nature of our system, and her clients’ lives.
Many Americans say they’re in favor of immigration if people would just “do it the right way.” What don’t we understand about legally immigrating to the United States?
You’ll often hear people talk about “getting in line.” What many Americans might not realize is for the vast majority of the world’s population, there is no such thing as a line to get into the United States. And even for those people who do have a line they can enter, the waiting period is so long—years, even decades—that it makes rational planning, by businesses and families, practically impossible.
What is the easiest way to enter the United States legally?
The easiest way to come to the United States is as a tourist—if you can prove that you’re actually planning to just be here as a tourist (the law presumes you’re actually trying to immigrate). But you mean to live here permanently? The “ease” with which a person can come to this country as a green card holder will typically depend on factors that came into being long before the intent to emigrate. If a person wants to emigrate in an employment-based category, then the ease, or difficulty, of that process will depend on the person’s education and training. If a person wants to come to the United States in a family-based category, then the length of that process will depend on the identity of the petitioning relative. Some categories, like the siblings of adult U.S. citizens, have waiting periods of many years; others, like the spouses, parents, and children of U.S. citizens, have no waiting periods at all, and the person is only delayed by the amount of time it takes to process the paperwork.
How difficult is it for people to become legal residents after they have entered illegally?
It is exceptionally difficult, and sometimes impossible. All of the more common routes to residency, involving sponsorship by a family member or prospective employer, generally require entry after inspection at the border, maintenance of a lawful status, and no employment without authorization. Without meeting those requirements, a green card applicant simply doesn’t qualify. He or she is faced with the prospect of leaving the country and applying for an immigrant visa at a U.S. consulate abroad. But in many cases, that departure will trigger a “bar” to returning, based on the amount of time previously spent without status in the United States.
It’s true that some people are able to obtain status despite having evaded inspection. But those paths are always more difficult to obtain, generally requiring some demonstration of unusual hardship or victimization. For example, some people who have been in the country unlawfully for 10 years or more, and who have clean criminal records, might be able to remain here, and obtain residency in removal proceedings, if they can demonstrate a high and unusual level of hardship to immediate family members with status. Others might obtain green card status through a grant of asylum, which requires showing that they face persecution in their home countries. And still others might obtain residency based on having been victims of domestic violence or other serious crimes. But these are the exceptions.
In broad terms, how has U.S. immigration policy changed over the past 30 years?
It has become more punitive. It has become more focused on enforcement and detention. The opportunities for the exercise of discretion have narrowed, or become burdened with more stringent standards. It has become a system where it’s increasingly difficult for someone who didn’t necessarily follow all of the rules to “get back on track” by showing that they, nevertheless, are worthy candidates for residency.
Describe your typical client.
They come from all over the world and speak a multitude of languages. They are children and great-grandparents. They have advanced degrees; they have elementary school educations. Some have never had an issue with immigration and want to make sure they never do. Others have made mistakes but now want to fix their papers, even if that process comes with substantial risk. The one thing they all have in common is that they have all developed abiding ties to this country—and they will put a lot of work into making those ties legally recognized.
Legislation Watch 2013: Immigration-related issues to look for at the state level.
The Colorado Asset Bill
The seventh version of this controversial piece of legislation—which makes Colorado’s undocumented immigrant students eligible for in-state tuition—passed through the Legislature earlier this year. At press time, the bill was awaiting Gov. John Hickenlooper’s signature.
Rollbacks to SB90
Numerous Colorado immigrants’ rights groups are working to introduce legislation that would curtail the link between local law enforcement and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Activists, such as the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition and the Colorado Progressive Coalition, are adamant that SB90’s “show me your papers” provision creates more problems than it solves, including instilling a fear of local police officers—who often just want to help—and using extraordinarily large amounts of taxpayer funds (about $13 million annually) to enforce it.
Illegal Immigrants and Colorado Driver’s Licenses
Campaigns by local groups such as Rights for All People and Driver’s Licenses for All have failed to garner the necessary support in recent years. But immigrants’ rights groups say they will look to support such a measure—a version of which passed in Illinois in January and is also law in states such as New Mexico and Washington—again in 2013.
60 percent of respondents said they did not know Colorado has had a similar law to Arizona’s “show me your papers” law since 2006—four years before the passage of Arizona’s SB1070.