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New immigration push has some in St. Louis feeling optimistic, still waiting for details

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 29, 2013 - Here’s a word you’ll hear a lot while reading about our immigration system -- broken.

In the opening lines of a bipartisan immigration framework from the Senate on Monday, that word showed up in the first line. President Barack Obama told a crowd in Las Vegas today that "I’m here because most Americans agree that it’s time to fix a system that’s been broken for way too long."

For both the senators and the presidents, the policies that follow that assessment are an attempt at repair, and one an immigration lawyer, a professor and advocates in St. Louis think, for the first time, may actually have a shot at doing that.

You can read about Obama's approach here, but the central points are this: a legal path to citizenship for the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in America that depends first on securing the borders; reform that would include attracting and retaining people who meet certain educational criteria and reducing the time it takes to reunite families; a federal employment verification system; and a change in how workers are admitted into the country.

“Some of it isn’t a big change, some of it’s just restructuring what current policy is,” says John Ammann, a professor and director of legal clinics at St. Louis University’s Law School. He includes in that border enforcement and employer verification. 

Jim Hacking, an immigration lawyer with Hacking Law Practice LLC, sees some of the language of the proposal as punitive and thinks there’s been enough focus on border enforcement.

“I guess politicians always have to mention enforcement first and often,” he says. “It sort of winds its way throughout this proposal.”

It’s also wound its way through the last four years of Obama’s presidency. As of December 2012, according to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the current administration deported 1.5 million undocumented immigrants since the Obama administration began, basically doubling what President George W. Bush did in his first term.

One thing no one could untangle was how this line of the framework would actually play out: “We will demonstrate our commitment to securing our borders and combating visa overstays by requiring our proposed enforcement measures be complete before any immigrant on probationary status can earn a green card.”

How can that be proven? How long will that take?

“I think a lot of it is just rhetoric,” Hacking said. “And as (New York Sen. Charles) Schumer said, the devil will be in the details.”

“So far this is all a statement of principles,” says Vanessa Crawford Aragon, executive director of MIRA, Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates. “So we will see what the actual language turns out being. We’re really happy that we’re having the conversation.”

So is Wei-Jen Chua Yankelevich, who first came to the country more than seven years ago to get her doctorate in immunology from Washington University. Yankelevich now lives in Washington, D.C., and works for the Food and Drug Administration and was featured in the Nine Network of Public Media's documentary “Homeland.” She spent months wading through paperwork to stay in the U.S., and is now only able to do that because she’s married to an American citizen. 

Under the new proposal, however, a priority would be given to getting green cards to people here getting their Ph.D.’s or master’s in fields like science, technology and math. 

“It makes no sense to educate the world’s future innovators and entrepreneurs only to ultimately force them to leave our country at the moment they are most able to contribute to our economy,” the framework reads. 

Yankelevich agrees. 

“I think it’s encouraging,” she says. “Both parties are going to sit down and really talk through issues. I think something that keeps brains in the U.S. is part of the big picture.”

It’s been a part of the big picture in St. Louis, where last year a committee was set up to find ways to make St. Louis a welcoming and attractive place for immigrants after a report came out from Jack Strauss, director of St. Louis University's Simon Center for Regional Economic Forecasting Research.

In the report, Strauss found that while St. Louis had relatively low numbers of immigrants, those here were more highly-skilled and paid than the average American citizen.

Also part of the big picture is working with people in the agricultural industry, who will, according to the framework “be treated differently than the rest of the undocumented population because of the role they play in ensuring that Americans have safe and secure agricultural products to sell and consume.”

This new classification, if it’s enacted, could lead to a more flexible system, Ammann says, one that’s more generous when times are good and contracts when the economy’s bad. If that happens, he thinks, people will come and go legally and safely over the border, work in the U.S., then go home.

And if people have the option of doing that,  Crawford Aragon says, fewer people will feel the need to cross the borders illegally and less money needed for border enforcement.

Where it should be going, she thinks, is to run USCIS, or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is responsible for processing immigrants paperwork, among other things.

How they’ll handle a potential new wave of people in the system, should the proposal become legislation, is something Hacking’s waiting to see. The system, as it currently operates, he says, can’t handle it.

There’s a current visa backlog of about 5 million people, says Anna Crosslin, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis. In that backlog are people who’ve followed the rules of the current system, and the process to reunite families is, for some, more than 20 years. How will that same system handle so many more cases?

Crosslin also says it’s also important not to provide new visas for immigrants at the cost of other immigrants. 

“It’s not about redistributing visas,” she says.

She’s concerned, too, about the need to have a continued focus on having a robust system that serves refugees and asylum seekers who come here, not because they want to, but because their lives depend on it.

The one thing the new proposal does lay out, everyone agrees, is a real path to citizenship for people who are undocumented. Just how that actual legislation gets written, who supports it and what ultimately results after the vote remains to be seen.

But the new bipartisan framework may indicate, at the very least, a shift in tone.

“I do think that there’s an understanding that communities of color are an important voting block that need to be paid attention to,” she says, adding that more people are recognizing immigrants as integral to communities and the economy, “and rather than doing everything we can to get immigrants to leave, we need to begin doing what we can to make immigrants feel welcome.”

So is 2013 the year for real immigration reform?

“I think so,” Ammann said. “I’m willing to take whatever motivation brings people to the table.”

In the seven and a half years Yankelevich has been in the country, this isn’t something she expected to see.

“It’s happening,” she said. “It’s really exciting and encouraging.”

“I believe this is an opening for it,” Crosslin agreed, but she thinks success will depend on enough people being on the other side of a generational shift that’s come to view immigrants as a positive part of the community.

Hacking didn’t want to be the guy to jinx it, but, he said, “I will say that I’m the most optimistic I’ve ever been.”