Bipartisan immigration reform delayed by polarized political gridlock

Katie Smith, Editor-in-Chief

For Sarah Alva’s husband, the seemingly mundane moments of American life like commuting to work or going to the bank were burdened by the crippling fear of sudden and permanent deportation.

Alva, a Charleston resident, said her husband, who she did not wish to identify by name, worried about being torn from a place he came to for a career and opportunity — an ever-present fear for America’s undocumented immigrants.

“My husband came to the U.S. on a working Visa and was able to stay here legally after his Visa expired,” Alva said. “It’s always a chance for you to go back to Mexico and you won’t be able to return.”

Alva shared her family’s story while speaking as part of a panel at the Latin American Student Organization’s “Undocumented Workers Week,” a series of presentations on the country’s unauthorized population, in early April.

An estimated 519,000 individuals in Illinois can be classified as “unauthorized,” but a political gridlock at the congressional level has left the country’s unauthorized population at a standstill.

The state’s unauthorized population is comprised of individuals who are mostly female between 25 to 34 years old and have lived in the United States for 10 to 14 years, have never been married and reside with no children.

On Nov. 20, 2014, President Barack Obama announced a series of executive actions to address illegal immigration. His order included plans to secure the border and prioritize deporting criminals before separating families.

His executive action would have also implemented particular undocumented immigrants to pass a criminal background check and pay taxes to be granted deferred deportation.

But even the criminal status of Illinois’ unauthorized population raised concerns for John Wilkie, a lawyer who works with undocumented immigrant cases and panel member during “Undocumented Workers Week.”

“A lot of clients are from Mexico, and 90 percent are undocumented,” Wilkie said. “The penalty for some cases are harsher for an immigrant and DUIs for immigrants bump out to class fours.”

Laura Vasquez, the senior immigration legislative analyst for the National Council of La Raza, said members of opposing political parties and interest groups agree on one thing: the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

Conn Carroll, White House correspondent for, a conservative news site, said an ideal plan would include elements to address areas outside of just border security.

“Not all illegal immigrants cross the border illegally. They came in perfectly legally through Visas, whether or not they’re going to work,” Carroll said. “These were students or even tourists and then they just stay.”

About 65 percent of Illinois’ unauthorized population is employed, and about 39 percent own their home.

Most recently, in 2013 the House of Representatives passed a comprehensive bill on a bipartisan basis that called for elements of what Vasquez believes would have been a step toward repairing America’s broken immigration system.

“It had border security components; it had work site enforcement components,” Vasquez said. “It had a piece to look at what do you do about young people who came into the United States at a very young age and have grown up here and they’re educated — so it included the DREAM Act — and it included people who have been in the United States for a long time to get on a path to citizenship, eventually.”

Because of the bill’s strong bipartisan support, Vasquez was not only confused, but also disappointed when it did not go past the U.S. House of Representatives.

“After we saw the Senate debating and the Senate passed the legislation, we thought, ‘this is the invitation for leadership to come to the table with their solution,’ and we would love to weigh in on what that would look like,” she said. “It takes everybody coming to the table and we just didn’t see that.”

Rodney Davis, the United States Representative for Illinois’ 13th congressional district, said his disappointment stems majorly from Obama’s use of executive action to enforce immigration reform, and he is not alone in his frustrations.

A federal judge in Texas has successfully put a hold on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) programs, which would permit individuals to be considered for a two-year period of deferred action and eligibility for work authorization, should they meet specific qualifications.

“Unfortunately — and this has been one of my biggest disappointments — I have just not seen the president engage not only Republicans like me on major issues, but he also doesn’t really engage many of my colleagues in the House of Representatives who are Democrats,” Davis said.

Because of the Texas court’s temporary injunction, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services will not be accepting requests for the expansion of DACA, although it will not affect existing DACA recipients.

An area that seems to cause friction between political parties is the discussion of who exactly is affected by the unauthorized population and in what ways.

Vasquez and employees at the National Council of La Raza sent an email to a list of supporters and followers asking, “What does administrative relief mean to you?”

“One of the interesting things that we saw were responses from people who they themselves are not undocumented. They themselves weren’t going to come forward and apply for relief,” she said. “We got replies from teachers, from pastors, faith leaders, from a mental health professional who all said, ‘This isn’t about my family, but this is important for my community.’”

Carroll said he also believes immigration law is important to communities, but in a different manner.

“Yes they will be paying a substantial amount in Social Security, Medicare and payroll taxes but they actually will be taking in more in tax credits than be paying income taxes,” he said.

Carroll cited a big problem for both conservatives and liberals as not having an honest conversation about immigration and what it would take to have a working legal system.

“If you have the sympathy and compassion for someone who is brought to this country when they were 5 years old and they’re 15, another person who is brought to the country tomorrow who is also 5 is going to have just as compassionate a base 10 years from now,” he said. “We cannot just keep saying, ‘OK the people who are here today, they are special; we’re not going to deport them’ and then say ‘but tomorrow I swear on my grave — we’re going to start deporting people tomorrow.’ That’s just not credible.”

According to White House officials, the process of passing immigration legislature through Congress was too drawn out, so the president took matters into his own hands in an effort to fix a broken system that is both outdated and not reflective of today’s society.

In Illinois, 15 percent of deferred action cases can be attributed to DACA 2012 program rules and the 2014 expansions, and 35 percent can be attributed to DAPA 2012 program rules.

Davis said the problem lies in the constitutionality of the president’s executive orders.

“We’re the United States of America. We should be able to attack major issues,” Davis said. “Politics and partisanship take over rather than policy making.”

While advocates like Vasquez hope for change at the congressional level, Davis believes the future of immigration policy is in the hands of the country’s young adults and new voters.

“It’s going to take young people . . . It’s going to take the students at Eastern Illinois University to decide to get engaged and to get engaged not just on this issue, but every issue,” he said. “Every decision we make in Washington, D.C. affects your future — when you’re older, when you’ll have families too.”


Katie Smith can be reached 581-2812 or [email protected]