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Euphoria Fades with Defeat of Immigration Reform


A US immigration reform bill that looked promising last month for millions of illegal immigrants to stay in the country failed to pass the Senate. In this 3rd of a 5 part series on the challenges facing African immigrants to the United States, VOA English to Africa’s Henok Fente reports on how the bill might have affected Africans.

In May, members of the U.S. Congress reached an agreement to formulate a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The legislation was put together by a bipartisan coalition from both the Republican and Democratic parties. It would have allowed about 12 million illegal immigrants to stay in the country.

Douglas Rivlin is with the National Immigration Forum, an NGO that advocates for immigration reform. He explains what lawmakers were trying to achieve,“What they were considering was a system to fix what is essentially a dysfunctional immigration system in the United States. It had to do with figuring out who could come here legally, whether through family immigration or through work. [It also had to deal with] maintaining and enhancing security and also dealing with the legal status of those who are already here who lack legal status.”

The bill came to be known as President Bush’s cornerstone domestic policy agenda after the president announced his support, “Those of us standing here believe now is the time to move a comprehensive bill that enforces our borders and has good work place enforcement that doesn’t grant automatic citizenship, that addresses this problem in a comprehensive way. The Senate majority leader has the same sense of desire to move this bill because now is the time to get it done.”

The bill’s main focus was immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, most being from Mexico. But James Roberts, an immigration lawyer who works with African immigrants, says the bill would have been comprehensive: “Even if initially they had in mind to help all of the Mexicans who are here illegally, when they started to write the bill, the way that the bill turned out it would have helped everybody. It would not have helped so much the people who are not here, but it [would help] the people who had been here as of January of ‘07.”

The bill also aimed to provide permanent residence status to people who had been granted temporary legal status. NIF’s Douglas Rivlin says this could have benefited immigrants from countries like Liberia that have emerged from civil war, “It would have provided a long and rather expensive but clear path to eventual permanent legal status and citizenship for a number of African nations who have temporary protective status. Like the Liberians who are going to be losing their temporary protective status and therefore will be losing their legal status in the United States.”

Immigration reform advocates say an all-forgiving immigration law would have benefited all immigrants. Chuks Eleonu heads African-Pac, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. He says African immigrants are less informed about their rights and need special attention, ”Of the major immigrant populations, Africans are the least organized. Therefore when they arrive, they are faced with far much worse prospects than any other immigrant groups combined. Most of them do not know their rights; most of them come from societies where freedom of speech and those types of things do not obtain. So they do not even know as an [asylum seeker] that they do have certain rights. They do not have rights to counsel so there is nobody advising them.”

When the immigration debate started in May, African-Pac proposed that the immigration debate be divided into different categories, including one for Africans. Eleonu says, “If you go with President Bush’s original plan, it would not have favored Africans because the whole idea was the farm labor. Africans do not come here to go the farm. I have lived in the west, I have lived in the mid-west, and I now live over here it is clear that Africans either they run their own businesses or they work in co-operations.”

Immigration lawyer James Roberts begs to differ. Roberts says the benefit is for all: “The benefit to the Africans would have been truly the same unless they were criminal.”

U.S. legislators stopped the immigration reform bill from becoming law. Analysts say it is going to be a long time before the bill is revived and comes to the Senate floor again for debate.