As Congress continues to debate comprehensive immigration reform, it’s worthwhile to ask about the immigrants who will be left out of whatever reform is enacted. Here’s a short comment I wrote for Zócalo Public Square, a “a not-for-profit daily Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism,” as part of its discussion about what immigration reform would mean for Chicago.
Comprehensive immigration reform legislation offers much promise to the 1.8 million immigrants in and around Chicago, including the more than half-million unauthorized immigrants. But even the best promises can be undercut by restrictive procedures. If CIR is enacted, many hopeful Chicagoans will find themselves shut out of legalization by what are shaping up to be onerous eligibility criteria.
As it currently stands, the Senate’s immigration proposal would bar many people who go about their daily lives as ordinary community members from obtaining the provisional green-card status that could eventually lead to citizenship. Even though immigrants commit fewer crimes than the native-born, the criminal bars to eligibility for legalization would affect many people convicted of relatively minor crimes. A conviction for jumping the turnstile to get on one of Chicago’s famous El trains, shoplifting, or a few misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions will likely thwart the legalization hopes of many, even if those convictions are in the distant past.
Innumerable Chicagoans commit these offenses every year, but many, such as students in the city’s elite college campuses who surely smoke marijuana on occasion, do so without encountering the criminal justice system. Thousands of others, however, are caught and convicted of these common offenses. For most, the consequences are trivial—a fine or a few days in jail. But for unauthorized immigrants, such convictions are likely to mean ineligibility for legalization, no matter how otherwise exemplary they may be.
Congress is poised to deem many unauthorized Chicagoans unworthy of legalization. They will continue to live in the shadows, forced to endure the uncertainty of being apprehended by immigration officials at any moment by the ordinary mistakes that countless in our society make.
This comment is re-posted from Zócalo Public Square’s web site.
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