Immigration is looming as a bigger political issue, and local groups are circling the wagons.
“I think in the legal arena immigration issues are going to turn out to be one of the harder issues to defend on civil-liberties grounds,” says American Civil Liberties Union leader Richard Siegel of Reno. “The power of the agency that used to be the INS is enormous. It’s a jailer, it has incredible arbitrary powers to deport and to arrest and to act on the basis of minor charges, to deport people on the basis of minor charges against them or even small immigration irregularities.”
At Washoe Legal Services, meanwhile, director Paul Elcano says providing services to legal immigrants is going to occupy more of his agency’s time.
“But I know it’s just not an easy thing to do and that a lay person just can’t do it,” he says of the difficulty of applying to remain in the United States.
Former Clinton campaign manager James Carville has warned of growing anti-immigrant feeling in the country.
“Sometime in the near future, and it could come as early as 2005, there is going to be a strong neo-isolationist movement coming out of both parties. It isn’t going to be a bunch of people talking crazy, either. There are a lot of people who see us bogged down in Iraq, overwhelmed by immigration and giving tax credits to companies that are just shipping our jobs overseas that are going to say, ‘Enough.’ “
The White House is pushing a “temporary-worker” plan for immigration changes that would allow illegal immigrants to apply to stay until they could seek citizenship. George Bush pumped for it at his news conference last week.
“It’s a compassionate way to treat people who come to our country,” he said. “It recognizes the reality of the world in which we live. There are some people—there are some jobs in America that Americans won’t do and others are willing to do.”
Bush’s stance has put him in opposition to many Republican congressional leaders, who want a more punitive anti-immigrant approach. It has also allied him with some Democrats whose leaders, however, haven’t been inclined to aid him. His position is more or less embodied in a bill sponsored by three Arizona members of Congress, including his longtime rival Sen. John McCain. (Washington journalists tend to describe any immigration changes as “reforms.)”
Elcano says immigration has become so sensitive a subject that even legal immigration has become a hot-button topic, particularly since, he says, people tend to lump legal and illegal aliens together. His agency is struggling to provide help for legal immigrants, some of whom are trying to remain in the country on a different basis than they entered.
“So for example if you’re applying as a battered spouse, you’ve got to be able to prove you’re a battered spouse to start with, and a lot of it’s a different application process than if you come here under family sponsorship,” he says.
Elcano also says Latinos aren’t the biggest local issue with regard to legal immigration.
“Less than half of lawful-immigration people in Washoe County are Latino. There’s a huge amount from Asia and a significant amount from Europe. … The people that need [help] are Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, eastern European, Jewish, Israelis.”
He says the process is very bureaucratic, and a person trying to stay in the United States can spend a lot of time just assembling documents to fill a file that will eventually be inches deep.
“First of all, you probably have got to get a birth certificate from Romania. So that means you have to have a letter drafted in Romanian sent to the correct office in Romania. And then you have to have it in a form that’s acceptable to INS [the Immigration and Naturalization Service].”
One of his agency’s lawyers, he says, nearly had to leave the country although she was in the United States legally with her husband.
“The first time she applied, she had an immigration lawyer, our own lawyer, and was denied. And she had to have the immigration lawyer do it all over again and appeal it to be able to stay with her bloody husband in this country, to whom she’s married, and who’s lawfully here.”
He knows of another case involving a Dutch person who married a U.S. dentist and who ran up legal bills of $5,000 in order to stay in the country.
Latinos are different from other groups in another way—their numbers have grown so dramatically that their voting power has given them some political protection. Siegel says politicians have altered their postures based on the threat of that voting power.
“There’s no question that immigrants in general and Latinos in [particular] have come from being a group, a category of people who were the victims of American politics, to one that is beginning to be favored by American politics. And the best example of that is probably the transformation of Harry Reid, who was an opponent in the early ‘90s. Harry was an opponent of both legal and illegal immigration in the first half of the ‘90s and wanted to cut off both legal and illegal immigration. In the last five years, [he’s] become a very visible champion of Latino and other immigrants. So Harry’s a good barometer of that change.”
But Siegel says the legal powers of immigration officials are insulated by law from court action, which makes them less accountable. “Its powers are substantially invulnerable to court challenges, and I think that most immigration attorneys are very frustrated because—at the level of being an ordinary immigration attorney—there’s very little that people can do for their clients. And the ACLU hasn’t figured out very well what we can do when the FBI wants to interview 20 members of the local mosque, which it did, or when it asks for other information on immigrants or uses other terrorism powers.”