To clear citizenship backlog but would eliminate family-based petitions for siblings and married children above 31
LOS ANGELES – Filipino immigration leaders say that nearly one million Filipinos (perhaps even more) will benefit from the proposed bi-partisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that was introduced by US senators (known as The Gang of Eight) on Tuesday.
Known more formally as The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, the proposed legislation provides a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented individuals in the country and will also help clear the backlog of the US legal immigration system for 4.4 million people.
Officially, the US Department of Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics estimates that 270,000 undocumented immigrants from the Philippines living in the US would benefit from the passage of this bill, along with another 462,000 Filipinos who have been waiting years to legally migrate in the United States.
Unofficially, Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) groups, like the Filipino Migrant Center and The Migrant Heritage Commission (MHC), say that the number is actually much higher — estimating anywhere from 500,000 to one million undocumented Filipinos living in the country illegally.
“We believe there are close to 1 million undocumented Filipinos living in the US, and nearly 250,000 to 300,000 here in Southern California alone,” said Cynthia Buiza, strategist for the National Immigration Law Center and the California Immigrant Policy Center. “I think the most important thing they need to understand with this bill is that it is a broad and strict process of legalization.
“We at the Filipino Migrant Center welcome this bill with optimism,” she added. “While we may have reservations especially family unity/visas, we think this is a good step in the right direction to fix the broken immigration system.”
Though some senators have come out criticizing the bill as too immigrant-friendly, APIA groups says it’s not favorable enough.
“This bill needs to be more friendly towards immigrants,” said Stewart Kwoh, president and executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) during a press conference held when the bill was unveiled.
“In particular, we’re concerned that the Asian Pacific Islander American community could be negatively [a]ffected.”
Kwoh specifically points to parts of the bill that eliminates the family-based visas for siblings of US citizens and adult married children over the age of 31. Both of those would directly negatively impact the Filipino community.
Under the proposed legislation, to qualify, undocumented immigrants will have to sign up for “Registered Provisional Immigrant Status” (RPI), pay a fine of $500, file back taxes, and pass a criminal background check.
As an RPI, undocumented immigrants would be allowed to work legally and travel outside of the country.
After the initial registration or about six years, those RPIs will have to file for a renewal in which they must continue to show a clean criminal record, pay another $500 fine, and evidence of continual employment.
After 10 years, RPIs may apply for permanent residency if they continue to show a clean criminal record, pay a $1,000 fine, show they are paying their taxes, and prove they are learning English.
Once granted permanent residency, they can apply for citizenship within three years.
Buiza points out for Filipino undocumented immigrants that if the bill does pass, they won’t have to rush to sign up.
“The application period is not just for one year,” she says.
“The new legalization program can be extended for another 18 months. In effect, it gives them two years and eight months to go through the system.”
However, the bill also stipulates that certain “triggers” must be met before an RPI could apply for permanent residency. The government would need to phase in or make mandatory the E-Verify system, and improve the border security to prevent future illegal immigration.
For Filipino legal migrants or those who have wallowed in the backlog of the country’s immigration system waiting anywhere upwards 20 years for their petition date, that should all be cleared within eight years, according to the legislation.
“The people currently in the visa backlog waiting for their priority date of processing will obtain LPR (Lawful Permanent Residency status) before the new RPIs or undocumented get their paperwork,” says Buiza.
“When you think about it, this is the literal ‘back of the line’ principle that the senators have been talking about.”
Under the proposed legislation, 18 months after the bill takes effect, US citizens will no longer be allowed to petition for their brother or sister. Also removed are visas for adult married children over the age of 31.
In its place, visas for high skilled workers have been increased.
“If you’ve been postponing on filing for your parents or brothers or sister to migrate over, you better do so now,” said Buiza.
DREAMers or those children who entered the country illegally with their parents, and agricultural workers will get their paperwork much sooner — within five years.
Pro-immigrant groups, though, are expressing caution over the proposed legislation.
There is still a lot more work to be done, according to Kwoh.
“This proposed bill is not perfect. There’s some good things and some negative things that need to be changed,” said Kwoh. “We’re here to call on the community and mobilize and take action to improve the bill.
“We think it’s a step forward but there’s still a lot of things that need to improve to benefit our community.”