TOPICS > Politics

Immigration Reform

February 17, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TED ROBBINS: The spring semester is beginning at Pima Community College in Tucson, and 20-year-old Luis Herrera has the same goal as most good students.

LUIS HERRERA: My goal is, you know, to get, to pass those classes and get those “A”s, straight “A”s.

TED ROBBINS: Straight “A”s.

LUIS HERRERA: Yeah. I mean, I’m paying for my classes. I’m paying for those classes, and got to learn something.

TED ROBBINS: Unlike most other students, though, Luis Herrera carries an extra burden. He is in the U.S. Illegally, brought here by his parents 11 years ago when he was 8. They came to the U.S. legally, through an official port of entry. They became and remain illegal by staying long after their tourist visas expired. The federal government estimates about half of all illegal immigrants got here the same way. They’re called overstays. Tourist visas are no longer given so liberally.

LUIS HERRERA: My parents didn’t go back, well … personally because most of our family was already here. My dad was able to get a … you know, started working and surviving. I think now we’re better off to live in the United States. We have a house. My parents are able to pay half of my education, and we’re doing good.

TED ROBBINS: Initially, Luis Herrera says his family welcomed President Bush’s recent immigration reform proposal, until they realized it was for another temporary visa of three to six years.

LUIS HERERA: My family and people I know were in the same situation, were really excited about it. But then, when it was made more clear that it’s just temporary visa and, you know, after three years, or in a few years, what, you know? We’re going to have to go back or, you know, are we going to end up in the same situation that we are, we currently are? So, I pretty much think that it falls short. There’s no, I mean, there’s no really clear path for one to become a U.S. citizen in this country. I mean, it’s a guest worker program in … it’s similar to probably the ones they had back in the ’40s, you know?

TED ROBBINS: Yolanda Morales’ father came from Mexico as a guest worker, or bracero, in the 1950s. She followed, illegally, in the 1980s. Now she has two sons, a house, and a job as a custodian at a Tucson elementary school. She says she supports the president’s proposal because it will help people trying, and dying in the desert, to get here. But she also has reservations.

YOLANDA MORALES (Translated): For the people who are coming now, it’s great. It’s great. But for the people who are here, are they going to have to leave with their families? All those children who were born here, who are established here, will they have to go back to Mexico?

TED ROBBINS: The fate of families and the temporary nature of a guest worker program are common worries throughout the immigrant community, says Rene Franco. He fled Guatemala as a political refugee during the 1980s. He’s now an immigration law counselor for Catholic Community Services. He’s spoken with dozens of illegal immigrants in the last few weeks, some of whom say they won’t even apply for a guest worker visa.

RENE FRANCO: The majority want permanent residence. Their reality, Ted, is that they have been living here for five, ten, 15 years and more. I just talked to a man this morning, and he said that he was fearful that the government having information about his family, date of birth, where he came from, where he entered, when did he enter the U.S., is that what’s going to be used to deport him by … at the end of the three or six years’ legal status?

TED ROBBINS: Some critics say the president’s plan will reward those who broke the law to enter the U.S., but Jose Ek-Vitorin says they are ignoring how difficult it is to enter legally. Ek-Vitorin is here legally from Mexico. He is an M.D. and a Ph.D. who works at the University of Arizona Physiology Department, researching what are called gap junctions — the space between cells which they use to communicate chemically with each other. He has an O-1 visa, given to “persons of extraordinary ability.” Despite that label, Ek-Vitorin has to go through a series of difficult visa renewals every few years.

DR. JOSE EK-VITORIN: This is the original petition, and letters of support, and what I plan to do, if there’s any grants that I got. These are mentions of my papers, and papers that cite my papers.

TED ROBBINS: Ek-Vitorin says he hopes visa reform will accompany immigration reform so no immigrant has to go through what he does.

DR. JOSE EK-VITORIN: I can tell you, there were days that I was thinking, what’s the point. I go to Mexico and I get my job and that’s it. Good cells?

TED ROBBINS: Last year the government granted only 6,000 “O” visas and 65,000 other specialized work visas. Jose Ek-Vitorin says he harbors no resentment toward those who might gain legal status without the visa hassles he has had.

DR. JOSE EK-VITORIN: Legal or illegal doesn’t mean moral or immoral; indecent or crime. It’s illegal because there is a law against it. There’s nothing wrong with it. I mean, if I want to work, pay me something and that’s it.

TED ROBBINS: Historically, any time changes in the laws are proposed, rumors run rampant in the non-English-speaking community. This is a monthly forum to educate immigrants, and to warn them against immigration fraud. The Texas state attorney general recently issued a similar warning, which Rene Franco echoes.

RENE FRANCO: To wait until it becomes clear that the Congress and the president has passed a law that allows you to apply to legalize. In the meantime, I think you should stay away from any person that approaches you saying, “Give me $500 and I’ll fix it … your papers with a new immigration law.” Nothing needs to be done right now.

TED ROBBINS: Luis Herrera is not likely to fall victim to fraud — only to time. He’s not required to prove his legal status at a community college. But to continue his education next year in a university, he’ll have to become legal. Herrera wants to become a doctor — a long process — so he favors congressional bills that could lead to permanent residency or citizenship. He says the president’s proposal is pure politics.

LUIS HERRERA: Personally, it’s for … to attract … get a strong Hispanic vote. The Democrats are doing the same thing. Like I said, if you are really serious about changing immigration policy, it will be, you know, supporting those bills that are currently already in Congress and have a good chance of passing this year.

TED ROBBINS: Yolanda Morales, meanwhile, will get to exercise that Hispanic vote. She gained legal status as a result of the 1986 federal amnesty. For years afterward she held permanent resident status. Then, last year, she realized her dream by becoming a U.S. citizen.

YOLANDA MORALES ( Translated ): We stayed here and we went all the way to the end, and we’re American citizens now, because we have our rights. We have the same rights as all Americans here in the United States. And that was a goal we set out to achieve, and we achieved it.

TED ROBBINS: For immigrants, the Bush proposal seems to have two contradictory goals. It allows newcomers easier access to the U.S. and jobs. But for those already here, it could mean registering with the government only to be forced back to their native countries, or back underground, when their permits expire.