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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane supporters call Democrats’ immigration reform package good step but recognize tough road ahead

FILE – In this June 15, 2019, file photo, migrants cross the Rio Bravo illegally to surrender to the American authorities, on the U.S.-Mexico border between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso. Thousands of people are waiting to claim asylum and more come each day, falsely believing they will be able to enter the U.S. now that former President Donald Trump is out of office. The Biden administration has promised a more “humane” approach but hasn’t said how or when it will act and is trying to discourage people from coming in the meantime.  (Christian Torres)

Democrats unveiled a Biden-backed immigration proposal Thursday, a plan that includes a new eight-year path to citizenship for roughly 11 million immigrants in the United States without legal status.

The plan, which reflects priorities President Joe Biden released on his first day, would overhaul the immigration system, something that hasn’t been done in more than 30 years. With a highly divided Congress, it’s unlikely such a sweeping proposal passes completely, although some advocates have said they would support a piecemeal approach.

Still, some Washington lawmakers and Spokane community leaders say it is a good first step in fixing the system.

“This would help so many immigrants waiting to file for citizenship,” said Lili Navarrete, director for social justice at the Hispanic Business/Professional Association in Spokane.

It took Navarrete and her family 12 years to get citizenship after arriving in Spokane from Mexico City in 1988. These days, Navarrete said the process can take 16 or 17 years.

“This plan could be so beneficial,” she said.

The legislation, introduced by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., reflects some immigration reform priorities Biden released on his first day in office. It would provide a process for citizenship for undocumented immigrants that would start with five-year temporary status. From there, they could apply for a green card but must wait three more years before applying for citizenship. Only those who were in the country by Jan. 1 would be eligible for this process – about 11 million people.

The package also includes a shorter process to legal status for agriculture workers and recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programs, also known as Dreamers.

And it calls for improving technology at the border for better screenings to detect contraband and criminal activity. Biden has halted construction on a border wall, put forth by former President Donald Trump.

Sen. Patty Murray tweeted her support of the bill on Thursday.

“Congress has a lot of work to do to restore honor, dignity and humanity to our immigration system after four years of the Trump Admin’s blatantly bigoted anti-immigration agenda, and @POTUS’ bill is a good and needed start,” she wrote.

Some Democrats and Biden have already said they would support a piecemeal approach, according to the Associated Press. Advocates have said they could pursue more narrow bills focused on citizenship for specific groups, such as DACA recipients and agricultural workers.

Two proposals that passed the House in 2019 but failed to pass in the Senate could be reintroduced as part of this piecemeal plan. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act creates an easier pathway to citizenship for agricultural workers while the Dream and Promise Act creates one for DACA recipients.

Some supporters of the bill say passing this legislation now is more important than ever, as the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affects communities of color. In Washington, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Hispanic populations have the highest age-adjusted COVID-19 rates in the state, with a rate four times as high as white and Asian populations. Agricultural workers have also experienced significant outbreaks of the virus.

Those who don’t have legal status also don’t have health care, Navarrete said, and those who do often face a language barrier or financial stress. Undocumented immigrants also can’t qualify for unemployment benefits, so many will work through COVID-19 symptoms to avoid losing money by taking time off.

“It’s a lot of stress and depression and anxiety,” she said.

Many Republicans in Congress criticized Democrats for not doing enough to secure the border, for providing amnesty to so many people, and for failing to work in a bipartisan manner.

Washington Rep. Dan Newhouse said this proposed legislation would make the nation less secure by “opening our borders and incentivizing illegal immigration.”

Newhouse pointed to his bipartisan work on the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would provide a path to legal status for farmworkers. He said he has also worked on providing legal certainty for DACA recipients.

“This immigration bill is a nonstarter. It is far too massive and, frankly, too dangerous – I cannot support it,” Newhouse said in a statement.

The country’s immigration system is “without a doubt” broken, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said in a statement, and more work needs to be done to achieve bipartisan immigration reform.

“I believe this work should continue, and I’m disappointed by the Biden administration and House Democrats’ decision to go it alone,” she said.

She added that the proposal sends the wrong message to “the immigrants who have waited their turn, followed the process to enter, and stay in the United States legally.”

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.