Legalization for All? Not with HR 4321

It looks like it is about time for immigration reform to be debated in Congress again. For the twelve million undocumented people in the United States, immigration reform could not come too soon.

H.R.4321 – Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009, the latest proposed legislation, would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status. This provision has caused anti-immigration activists such as Mark Krikorian and others to voice concern about the proposed legislation. Among immigrant-rights activists, the provision is generally celebrated. However, many activists also recognize that HR 4321 likely will not provide for the legalization of all 12 million undocumented people in the US.

HR 4321 provides legalization only to those undocumented immigrants who qualify. Any undocumented immigrant who has been convicted of more than three misdemeanors or one felony will not be eligible for legalization.

This may, at first glance, seem like a fair provision. Who wants criminal elements in our midst? However, if we consider the potential human costs to deportation, the story changes. Felonies are generally crimes for which the sentence is more than one year. Felony convictions vary by state but could include, for example, property damage over $250 (Arizona) or possession of one gram of cocaine (Indiana) possession of four ounces of marijuana (Texas) or possession of a BB gun (New Jersey). These are crimes, but many would argue that the punishment should not be permanent separation from one’s loved ones. For many, deportation amounts to exile from the only country they have known.

Due to racist police tactics and a discriminatory justice system, felony convictions are all too common for people of color. For example, Bureau of Justice statistics estimate that 17% of Hispanic males in the United States will go to State or Federal prison at least once in their lifetimes (pdf).  Notably, only about 75% of people convicted of felonies actually serve time, making the rate of felony convictions for Latinos even higher. Rates of incarceration for immigrants are lower than for the native born.  However, it is reasonably safe to say that as many as one million of the current twelve million undocumented migrants currently in the United States will not be eligible for legalization because of prior criminal convictions.

Many of these one million people will be long-term residents of the United States, and will have families in the United States. Knowing they have a criminal conviction, they will be faced with the choice of remaining in the shadows and continuing to live with their families and leaving their families behind to fend for themselves.

In short, anything less than legalization for all will mean that the problems associated with undocumented migration will not go away with immigration reform. We will continue to have people in the United States who are deprived of the basic rights that go along with legal status, and, of course, citizenship.

It is crucial to point out that those undocumented migrants that can take advantage of legalization will benefit from the passage of a bill such as HR 4321. For that reason, this bill deserves the support of the progressive community. At the same time, we should continue to push for the long-held goal of the immigrant rights movement – legalization for all! Anything less will be a compromise that will harm millions of immigrants and their families.

~ Tanya Maria Golash-Boza teaches at the University of Kansas and blogs about her research on the consequences of mass deportation at http://tanyagolashboza.blogspot.com/

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