April 27, 2009

A Family Divided by 2 Words, Legal and Illegal

April 26, 2009

By: David Gonzalez

For the father, the choice was obvious: An engineer with several jobs yet little money, he saw no future for his daughter and son in their struggling country, Ecuador. Eight years ago, he paid coyotes to smuggle him into Texas, then headed to New York, where his wife and children flew in as tourists, and stayed.

But the consequences of that clear-cut decision — the immigrant’s perennial impulse to uproot for the sake of the next generation — have been anything but simple.

The daughter excelled in her Queens high school and graduated from college with honors, but at 22 is still living in this country illegally. So while her former accounting classmates hold lucrative corporate jobs and take foreign vacations, she keeps the books for a small immigrant-run business, fears venturing outside the city and cannot get a driver’s license in the country she has come to love.

Meanwhile, her 17-year-old brother, who was born in the United States during an earlier stay and is thus an American citizen, enjoys privileges his family cannot, like summers in Ecuador with his cousins. But bored and alone most afternoons, he declared last fall that he wanted to move back to the old country.

“How can he even think that?” said his mother, stunned. “We’re sacrificing ourselves so he can get a better education and a better job. After giving up everything to come here, he — the only one with papers — wants to go back?”

These four — who let a reporter and a photographer trail them only if they were not identified, for fear of being deported — are part of a growing group of what are often called mixed-status families. Nearly 2.3 million undocumented families, about three-quarters of those who are here illegally, have at least one child who is a United States citizen, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Nearly 400,000 of them have both citizen and noncitizen children.

Their ranks are fed by the unending tide of illegal immigration, and by federal laws that deny legal status to foreign-born children — who had no say in moving here — while granting citizenship to their American-born siblings.

And as their numbers rise, they are challenging the most stubborn stereotypes of 21st-century immigrants: that they fit neatly into separate groups — legal or illegal, here to stay or bent on returning home. That they are mostly men on their own, making independent choices.

In fact, most immigrants live in families, with a blend of legal statuses, opportunities and dreams. To spend time with this Queens family is to see, up close, how the growing disparities within immigrant homes are pulling their members in opposite directions and complicating efforts to plan a common future.

The four are now split between two households, and between those who expect to stay and those who would return to Ecuador — a tally that keeps shifting. The daughter, despite tireless efforts to get ahead, feels she is losing ground and worries that her brother takes his citizenship for granted. The son, despite his freedom, carries the weight of his family’s highest hopes.

Their status is also mixed in less obvious ways. The mother, 47, who gave up her fledgling career in Ecuador as a computer systems analyst and now baby-sits for a living, has not had anywhere near the same opportunities in this country as the father, also 47, who found rewarding work as a draftsman. Increasingly dissatisfied, she has tried in vain to leverage her son’s citizenship to get a green card granting her permanent residency.

Still, they are a loving family, and better off than many illegal immigrants, making a comfortable life in a city that welcomes foreigners, with or without papers. The parents are among a rising proportion of illegal immigrants with higher educations — at least one in every four are believed to have had some college — abandoning careers back home to try to vault their children into the American middle class in a single generation.

Yet as each year brings new setbacks, they hear the clock ticking and push their children harder. For all the daughter’s high ambitions, the mother never misses a chance to point out a simple solution to her career impasse: find an American husband.

One Saturday night last month, the family gathered to celebrate the daughter’s 22nd birthday in a Chinese restaurant where most of the tables were filled for a raucous wedding reception. As they waited under the swirling disco lights for dishes of pork and seafood, the parents asked the children about their plans — for school, for work, for life.

The son was characteristically vague, saying only that he wanted to attend college. The daughter, as usual, had her future worked out in fine detail: graduate school, community work, a life of service and independence.

But they could barely be heard above the dance music pounding through the restaurant. As a toast was raised to the bride and groom, the din grew louder. Dozens of guests clinked their spoons on glasses.

The mother grinned and leaned in close to the daughter. If she were to be married, “that’s how it would be,” the mother suggested. “Everybody making noise.”

The daughter looked away in silence.

A Costly Education

The girl was smart, very smart. At age 7, she was working the cash register at her parents’ small office-supply shop in Ecuador. By 9, she was absorbed in math, poring over her schoolwork long after everyone else had gone to bed.

And as she neared her 14th birthday, the father began to think the unthinkable: taking the family back to the United States to put her through college.

They had been here before. After graduating at the top of his class from the polytechnic university in Quito, he had moved to New York in 1986 — legally, on a student visa — for graduate studies in engineering at City College, intending to return home to his wife.

But when the couple learned she was pregnant with their first child, he dropped out and took a factory job — violating the terms of his visa — then arranged to have his wife and baby daughter smuggled into Texas and spirited to New York, where he felt he could best provide for them.

“I knew I was passing into illegality,” said the father, a trim, youthful man with an engineer’s matter-of-fact manner. “It was a very difficult decision to make. But I had to support them.”

In time, they moved to Miami and had the son, born an American citizen. But their hopes of a prosperous American life eluded them, and in 1992 they returned to Ambato, the agricultural hub in Ecuador where the father had grown up.

And now, as their daughter raced through Catholic school there, skipping two grades and outpacing her classmates, the father worried about the quality of schooling in Ecuador, where the economy was slipping into chaos. He resolved to give her, and her brother, the American education he never completed.

His own father — a man with a third-grade education who supported 10 children and became chief of the repair shops for Ecuador’s national railroad — blessed the move back to the United States. The old man had taught him to do whatever it took to provide for the family. “He always said you should go to bed thinking about what you were going to do tomorrow,” he said.

His wife’s father, however, had a different motto: Always keep the family together. She was crushed at the prospect of leaving hers, a close-knit clan of urban professionals who begged her to stay.

Her first American sojourn had been ego-crushing for her, a college graduate working in a mattress factory where West Indian supervisors addressed her as “muchacha.” Girl.

“Do you know what this is like?” asked the mother, a woman of quiet poise. “To be around so many uneducated people? But I had to be with my husband.”

‘I’m Going to Seattle’

They arrived in New York in 2001. The father found work with a Queens construction company owned by Chinese immigrants, taking precise measurements at work sites and turning them into computerized drawings. He makes more than he would in Ecuador, and enjoys the chance to showcase his skills and get around the city, into well-appointed offices and high rises.

The mother, meanwhile, cares for children in cramped apartments not nearly as nice as the rambling, modern house she grew up in.

The discrepancies between their lives frayed an already strained relationship; they separated four years ago. The children spend most weekdays with their father, in the narrow attic of a dark house in Elmhurst, Queens, owned by his brother, a legal resident who arrived in the 1970s. On weekends, they take the subway and a bus to the basement apartment their mother rents in another Queens neighborhood, Bayside.

All the work and shuttling around leave the family little time together. Sometimes the father takes the son to soccer games, where he and other immigrants talk about friends who have gone home or died. The mother speaks regularly with her three sisters in Ecuador by webcam, and fills her iPod with melancholy songs from her homeland. As the most adventurous of the sisters — the first to learn to drive — she feels a growing restlessness.

Coming home from a meditation class one Sunday in February, she had barely removed her coat when she jolted the children with an announcement: “I think I’m going to Seattle.” A friend in class had told her that Washington did not require a Social Security number to obtain a driver’s license.

The daughter was alarmed, fearing her mother could be arrested on the trip. But the mother pressed ahead, buying plane tickets for herself and her son. She asked the daughter to help her find a hotel.

Instead, the daughter stayed up one night talking to a friend who had gotten a Washington license, who said the mother would have to pay $3,000 for forged documents attesting to her residency and employment. First thing the next morning, the daughter called her mother. “There’s no way you can qualify,” she said. “There’s too much danger that you can be caught.”

The mother reluctantly agreed to forget the trip, and the hundreds of dollars she lost on airfare.

“My hopes are dead,” she said recently. “Right now we’re just focused on the education of the children and their future. Let them reach their goals and have their dreams.”

Firstborn, Second Class

On her days off, the daughter occasionally rewards herself with a concert or a meal out. But one afternoon in a noisy Colombian restaurant in Jackson Heights, her eyes strayed from her coffee cup to the sidewalks along Roosevelt Avenue, crowded with illegal immigrants who toil in kitchens or clean homes.

“I used to think I was different because I went to college,” said the daughter, who speaks softly and can still pass for a high school junior. “But I’m no better than anyone else. Like them, I don’t have my documents. So I’m just one among millions.”

She is also among an estimated 65,000 young people who graduate from American high schools each year without immigration papers, according to the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, D.C. Like many children brought into the country illegally by their parents, she began to understand just what that meant when she approached a high school guidance counselor about college.

“She asked me for my Social Security number,” the daughter recalled. “She said she couldn’t help me with applications without one. So I went home and asked my father for it. He told me, ‘Oh, you don’t have one.’ ”

She quickly learned the other things she would not have: the scholarships her teachers had assured her she would win, the chance to attend a college out of state, or any hope of softening the consequences of her parents’ move. It is nearly impossible for an illegal immigrant child to become a legal resident without going back to the native country, then waiting a requisite 10 years to apply.

For the daughter, that is out of the question. “All my friends are here,” she said. “All I know is here. If I returned, I’d be lost.”

Scholars who study illegal immigrant families say it is usually the older children who recognize their parents’ sacrifice and work hardest to achieve. But those are the same children most likely to have been born abroad.

Luckily for the daughter, she lives in New York, one of 10 states that allow illegal immigrants to pay resident tuition rates at public universities. With $5,000 a year from her father and a baby-sitting job, she attended a highly ranked college in the City University of New York, posting a 3.8 grade point average in accounting.

But the young woman so adept with numbers still lacked the Social Security number needed just to file an application for a job or summer internship. So as her friends — many of them children of immigrants with papers — landed $70,000-a-year jobs, she scoured college bulletin boards for a small business willing to risk hiring her for half that.

“Sometimes I felt like crying or screaming,” she said. “Some of my friends knew why I didn’t apply for corporate jobs. But other people who didn’t know would criticize and judge me. They thought I was lazy or stupid not to apply.”

She was eventually hired as a bookkeeper by a small firm that provides immigrants — the dark humor is not lost on her — with information on visas and government policy. She is paid on the books, thanks to the tax identification number the federal government provides to people without Social Security numbers, and she pays taxes — $2,000 on this year’s federal return.

Though overqualified and underpaid for the job, she rarely complains. Instead, she and her boyfriend — a college student from Mexico who is also in the country illegally — spend their free time volunteering with the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an immigrant group pushing Congress to pass the Dream Act, which would grant legal status to high school graduates who were brought to the United States by their parents.

Her mother prefers a quicker solution: Dump the boyfriend and marry an American. “The ends justify the means,” the mother said. “I tell her, ‘Think about it with a clear head. If it doesn’t go well, you could always separate.’ ”

At first, the daughter was aghast at the notion of marrying for reasons other than love. But as another spring arrives with no change in immigration policy, she has begun to waver.

“I’m thinking, it might be worth giving it a try because this is so frustrating,” she said. “It’s actually getting to me.”

‘He’s a King’

Above a plastic heart dangling from the wall, two photographs in the mother’s apartment neatly sum up the passions of her children. The daughter stands, beaming, in cap and gown. The son, in shorts, goofs around with his cousins on a South American beach.

The son is tightly tied to Ecuador. As the only family member who can travel freely, he has spent three summers there, playing soccer and going to amusement parks with cousins, including two boys he has grown so close to that everyone calls the trio “Los Compadres.” Back in New York, he sends them messages constantly via e-mail and Facebook.

He seems far less emotionally connected to Queens, where he comes home after school to an empty apartment to do homework. His mother frets about him. “He needs the warmth of family,” she said.

But the family, here and in Ecuador, insists he stay in the United States. “As a citizen, all doors are open for him,” the mother said. “He knows there is a difference, that he can do what we cannot.”

Their hopes for him sometimes edge into impatience. As mother and daughter watched “Hairspray” one Saturday afternoon, the son dozed in his dark bedroom.

“He’s a king,” said the mother, who wishes he would take a part-time job, for the discipline and spending money. “In Ecuador, nobody works until they graduate from college. But we’re in the United States now, and a different society has different customs. He should work.”

“He wants to work,” the daughter insisted. “But my father won’t let him. He wants him to study.”

Indeed, the father has counseled him not to be lured by the quick money that leads other neighborhood boys to drop out of school to work at delis or construction sites for $500 a week. Concerned that the son’s grades have slipped, he closely follows his schoolwork, meeting often with teachers.

The daughter watches over him, too. In many mixed-status families, siblings clash: The older child, without papers, often has to work harder to succeed and resents the privileges the younger child enjoys as a citizen — especially if he seems not to be taking advantage of them, said Walter Barrientos, a founder of the Youth Leadership Council.

The daughter speaks of her brother with obvious affection. But as he remained out of earshot in the other room, she vented a mounting frustration.

She had taken him to meetings of the youth group, but he showed little interest in helping its campaign for the Dream Act. “He doesn’t see how difficult it is for us not having documents,” she said. “And he sees how it is for me — I can’t go back to Ecuador or get a better job. It’s unfortunate, when somebody close to his heart is suffering.”

She feared that as a high school junior, he was nearing graduation without a serious plan. “Knowing I couldn’t get a scholarship, that pushed me even more — it pushed me to work hard,” she said. “For him, he has all the possibilities, but he’s not thinking. It’s hard to understand what he’s thinking.”

In some ways, he is just a typical 17-year-old, stingy with words. His thinking has actually changed: Over the last few months, he has stopped talking about a return to Ecuador and started exploring the notion of studying architecture at an American college.

But he has also dropped hints that he feels the pressure many citizen children of illegal immigrants experience.

“Maybe they expect too much of me,” he confided. “But my family wanted me to come here. It’s better for me, and better for my sister.”

Half a world away, the sunny duplex apartment the family built during their last stay in Ambato sits vacant, though filled with their possessions — family photos, the son’s action figures, the daughter’s books — as if awaiting their return. Relatives beseech them to come back, even promising jobs to sweeten the offer.

The parents resist their pleas. They have not come this far, sacrificing their own careers and comforts, to miss seeing their children succeed in America.

If that day comes, both parents say they will gladly return to their homeland — even the father whose firm decision brought them all to the United States. Ecuador is the land he loves. New York is only the means to an end.

“I crashed a party I was not invited to, and one day I’ll be asked to leave,” he said. “I know. This is a place to work. Not to die.”

April 23, 2009

After Losing Freedom Some Immigrants Face Loss of Custody of their Children

April 23, 2009

By: Ginger Thompson

CARTHAGE, Mo. — When immigration agents raided a poultry processing plant near here two years ago, they had no idea a little American boy named Carlos would be swept up in the operation.
One of the 136 illegal immigrants detained in the raid was Carlos’s mother, Encarnación Bail Romero, a Guatemalan. A year and a half after she went to jail, a county court terminated Ms. Bail’s rights to her child on grounds of abandonment. Carlos, now 2, was adopted by a local couple.
In his decree, Judge David C. Dally of Circuit Court in Jasper County said the couple made a comfortable living, had rearranged their lives and work schedules to provide Carlos a stable home, and had support from their extended family. By contrast, Judge Dally said, Ms. Bail had little to offer.
“The only certainties in the biological mother’s future,” he wrote, “is that she will remain incarcerated until next year, and that she will be deported thereafter.”
It is unclear how many children share Carlos’s predicament. But lawyers and advocates for immigrants say that cases like his are popping up across the country as crackdowns against illegal immigrants thrust local courts into transnational custody battles and leave thousands of children in limbo.
“The struggle in these cases is there’s no winner,” said Christopher Huck, an immigration lawyer in Washington State.
He said that in many cases, what state courts want to do “conflicts with what federal immigration agencies are supposed to do.”
“Then things spiral out of control,” Mr. Huck added, “and it ends up in these real unfortunate situations.”
Next month, the Nebraska Supreme Court is scheduled to hear an appeal by Maria Luis, a Guatemalan whose rights to her American-born son and daughter were terminated after she was detained in April 2005 on charges of falsely identifying herself to a police officer. She was later deported.
And in South Carolina, a Circuit Court judge has been working with officials in Guatemala to find a way to send the baby girl of a Guatemalan couple, Martin de Leon Perez and his wife, Lucia, detained on charges of drinking in public, to relatives in their country so the couple does not lose custody before their expected deportation.
Patricia Ravenhorst, a South Carolina lawyer who handles immigration cases, said she had tried “to get our judges not to be intimidated by the notion of crossing an international border.”
“I’ve asked them, ‘What would we do if the child had relatives in New Jersey?’ ” Ms. Ravenhorst said. “We’d coordinate with the State of New Jersey. So why can’t we do the same for a child with relatives in the highlands of Guatemala?”
Dora Schriro, an adviser to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, said the agency was looking for ways to deal with family separations as it prepared new immigration enforcement guidelines. In visits to detention centers across the country, Ms. Schriro said, she had heard accounts of parents losing contact or custody of their children.
Child welfare laws differ from state to state. In the Missouri case, Carlos’s adoptive parents were awarded custody last year by Judge Dally after they privately petitioned the court and he terminated Ms. Bail’s rights to Carlos.
In February, immigration authorities suspended Ms. Bail’s deportation order so she could file suit to recover custody. Ms. Bail’s lawyer, John de Leon, of Miami, said his client had not been informed about the adoption proceedings in her native Spanish, and had no real legal representation until it was too late.
The lawyer for Carlos’s adoptive parents, Joseph L. Hensley, said his clients had waited more than a year for Ms. Bail to demonstrate her commitment to Carlos, but the judge found that she had made no attempt to contact the baby or send financial support for him while she was incarcerated. The couple asked not to be named to protect Carlos’s privacy.
Ms. Bail came to the United States in 2005, and Carlos was born a year later. In May 2007, she was detained in a raid on George’s Processing plant in Butterfield, near Carthage in southwestern Missouri.
Immigration authorities quickly released several workers who had small children. But authorities said Ms. Bail was ineligible to be freed because she was charged with using false identification. Such charges were part of a crackdown by the Bush administration, which punished illegal immigrants by forcing them to serve out sentences before being deported.
When Ms. Bail went to jail, Carlos, then 6 months old, was sent to stay with two aunts who remembered him as having a voracious appetite and crying constantly. But they also said he had a severe rash and had not received all of his vaccinations.
The women — each with three children of their own, no legal status, tiny apartments and little money — said the baby was too much to handle. So when a local teachers’ aide offered to find someone to take care of Carlos, the women agreed.
Then in September 2007, Ms. Bail said, the aide visited her in jail to say that an American couple was interested in adopting her son. The couple had land and a beautiful house, Ms. Bail recalled being told, and had become very fond of Carlos.
“My parents were poor, and they never gave me to anyone,” Ms. Bail recalled. “I was not going to give my son to anyone either.”
An adoption petition arrived at the jail a few weeks later. Ms. Bail, who cannot read Spanish, much less English, said she had a cellmate from Mexico translate. With the help of a guard and an English-speaking Guatemalan visitor, Ms. Bail wrote a response to the court.
“I do not want my son to be adopted by anyone,” she scrawled on a sheet of notebook paper on Oct. 28, 2007. “I would prefer that he be placed in foster care until I am not in jail any longer. I would like to have visitation with my son.”
For the next 10 months, she said, she had no communication with the court. During that time, Judge Dally appointed a lawyer for Ms. Bail, but later removed him from the case after he pleaded guilty to charges of domestic violence.
Mr. Hensley, the lawyer for Carlos’s adoptive parents, said he had sent a letter to Ms. Bail to tell her that his clients were caring for her son, as did the court, but both letters were returned unopened. “We afforded her more due process than most people get who speak English,” Mr. Hensley said.
Ms. Bail said she had asked the public defender who was representing her in the identity theft case to help her determine Carlos’s whereabouts, but the lawyer told her she handled only criminal matters. “I went to court six times, and six times I asked for help to find my son,” she said. “But no one helped me.”
Ms. Bail got a Spanish-speaking lawyer, Aldo Dominguez, to represent her in the custody case only last June. By the time he reached her two months later — she had been transferred to a prison in West Virginia — it was too late to make her case to Judge Dally, Mr. Dominguez said.
“Her lifestyle, that of smuggling herself into the country illegally and committing crimes in this country, is not a lifestyle that can provide stability for a child,” the judge wrote in his decision. “A child cannot be educated in this way, always in hiding or on the run.”

April 17, 2009

Canada Issues a Wake-Up Call: You May be a Citizen

April 17, 2009

Phred Dvorak

Thanks to a new law, Canada will bestow citizenship Friday on what its government believes could be hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting foreigners, most of them Americans.
The April 17 amendment to Canada's Citizenship Act automatically restores Canadian nationality to many people forced to renounce it when they became citizens of another country. It also grants citizenship to their children.
In the video 'Waking Up Canadian,' a man goes to sleep in a drab room and wakes up to find out that he's become a citizen of Canada. Surrounded by flags, maple-leaf-shaped cookies and a canister of maple syrup, he's welcomed by a hockey player, two plush moose and a uniformed Mountie.
The Canadian government doesn't know the precise number or location of individuals affected by the legislation. But it believes most are U.S. citizens, a spokeswoman for Canada's immigration office said. U.S. Department of Homeland Security records show 240,000 Canadians were naturalized in the U.S. from 1948 to 1977; the new law fixes problems that occurred during those years.
To reach that amorphous group of beneficiaries, the Canadian government has turned to YouTube. It's running an ad there titled "Waking up Canadian," in which a man awakens on April 17 to a room festooned with red-and-white Canadian flags. He's met by a welcoming committee consisting of two stuffed plush moose, a hockey player, and a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Eligible individuals automatically become Canadian citizens. But they don't get proof of that citizenship unless they apply for it, meaning other countries -- including those that allow people to be citizens of only one nation -- won't be alerted, according to the immigration office spokeswoman. Those people also may renounce their citizenship rights, she said.

The citizenship bonanza is the byproduct of a decadeslong struggle by a motley group of people who claim they were unfairly denied or lost their Canadian nationality. Canadian families who crossed the border in 1947 to 1977 to have their babies in a U.S. hospital found those children weren't recognized as Canadians unless the families registered them with the government. Some foreign brides of Canadian World War II servicemen lost their citizenship if they stayed out of the country for a decade or more.
Then there are the Canadian Mennonites who moved to Mexico in the 1920s to the 1960s. When their children and grandchildren returned to Canada, many found their nationality unclear.
Some such cases languished in litigation for years. Others surfaced in 2007, when new U.S. rules requiring passports for travel between Canada and the U.S. uncovered significant numbers of people who thought they were Canadian, but weren't. The old rules were "quite intricate," said Bill Janzen, an immigration lobbyist in Ottawa for the Mennonite Central Committee of Canada.
The new law offers citizenship to many individuals now in limbo. It also stops the previous practice of granting citizenship in perpetuity to children of Canadians born abroad, limiting eligibility to children of parents born in Canada.

April 14, 2009

Immigration Accord by Labor Boosts Obama Effort

April 14, 2009

By Julia Preston and Steven Greenhouse

The nation’s two major labor federations have agreed for the first time to join forces to support an overhaul of the immigration system, leaders of both organizations said on Monday. The accord could give President Obama significant support among unions as he revisits the stormy issue in the midst of the recession.

John Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and Joe T. Hansen, a leader of the rival Change to Win federation, will present the outlines of their new position on Tuesday in Washington. In 2007, when Congress last considered comprehensive immigration legislation, the two groups could not agree on a common approach. That legislation failed.

The accord endorses legalizing the status of illegal immigrants already in the United States and opposes any large new program for employers to bring in temporary immigrant workers, officials of both federations said.

“The labor movement will work together to make sure that the White House as well as Congress understand that we speak about immigration reform with one voice,” Mr. Sweeney said in a statement to The New York Times.

But while the compromise repaired one fissure in the coalition that has favored broad immigration legislation, it appeared to open another. An official from the United States Chamber of Commerce said Monday that the business community remained committed to a significant guest-worker program.

“If the unions think they’re going to push a bill through without the support of the business community, they’re crazy,” said Randel Johnson, the chamber’s vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits. “There’s only going to be one shot at immigration reform. As part of the trade-off for legalization, we need to expand the temporary worker program.”

The common labor position is also unlikely to convince many opponents that an immigration overhaul would not harm American workers. When Obama administration officials said last week that the president intended to push Congress this year to take up an immigration bill that would include a path to legal status for the country’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, critics criticized the approach as amnesty for lawbreakers.

“In our current economic crisis, Americans cannot afford to lose more jobs to illegal workers,” said Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican who sits on the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration. “American workers are depending on President Obama to protect their jobs from those in America illegally.”

The two labor federations have agreed in the past to proposals that would give legal status to illegal immigrants. But in 2007 the A.F.L.-C.I.O. parted ways with the service employees and several other unions when it did not support legislation put forth by the Bush administration because it contained provisions for an expanded guest-worker program.

In the new accord, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and Change to Win have called for managing future immigration of workers through a national commission. The commission would determine how many permanent and temporary foreign workers should be admitted each year based on demand in American labor markets. Union officials are confident that the result would reduce worker immigration during times of high unemployment like the present.

Mr. Hansen, who is president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said in an interview that the joint proposal was a “building block to go forward to get immigration reform up on the agenda in Congress” sometime this year.

Thousands of immigrant farm workers and other low-wage laborers come to the United States through seasonal guest-worker programs that are subject to numerical visa limits and have been criticized by employers as rigid and inefficient. Many unions oppose the programs because the immigrants are tied to one employer and cannot change jobs no matter how abusive the conditions, so union officials say they undercut conditions for American workers. Highly skilled foreign technology engineers and medical specialists also come on temporary visas.

Advocates for immigrants said a unified labor movement could substantially bolster their position as they push for legislation to restructure the ailing immigration system.

“It shows how important the issue is to the representatives of American workers,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an advocate group.

A.F.L.-C.I.O. officials said they agreed with Change to Win leaders that, with more than seven million unauthorized immigrants already working across the nation, legalizing their status would be the most effective way to protect labor standards for all workers.

“We have developed a joint strategy with the approach framed around workers’ rights,” said Ana Avendaño, associate general counsel of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

Labor leaders said that they would talk with other groups in coming weeks to nail down details of a common position, and that they would then would work in Congress and with the Obama administration to try to ensure that their proposal was part of any bill offered for debate.

Also supporting the compromise is Eliseo Medina, an executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, a member of Change to Win with hundreds of thousands of members who are immigrants. The Change to Win federation was formed in 2005 with seven unions that broke away from the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

The plan for a labor commission to monitor and control levels of worker immigration was developed with help from Ray Marshall, a labor secretary under President Jimmy Carter. Over the past year, Mr. Marshall, at the request of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., has been consulting between the two federations and with a variety of Hispanic organizations and advocate groups for immigrants.

“All these groups understand that one of the main reasons they lost before was that they were not together,” Mr. Marshall said.

According to a list of principles the labor leaders will present on Tuesday, they are proposing a “depoliticized,” independent commission that “can assess labor market needs on an ongoing basis and — based on a methodology to be approved by Congress — determine the number of foreign workers to be admitted for employment purposes.”

Mr. Johnson, the Chamber of Commerce official, said, “A commission doesn’t get us there.”

Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a group that organizes businesses to support comprehensive immigration legislation, agreed that employers would have many questions about the approach.

“The question is, Will the commission work?” Ms. Jacoby said. “Will it be adequately attuned to and triggered by the labor market? A system that may — or may not — supply the workers that business will need in the future after the recession will be a cause of great concern to employers.”

April 12, 2009

In Silicon Valley, Recruiting Clashes with Immigration Rules

By: Matt Richtel

April 11, 2009

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Where’s Sanjay?
The question comes from one of dozens of engineers around a crowded conference table at Google. They have gathered to discuss how to build easy-to-use maps that could turn hundreds of millions of mobile phones into digital Sherpas — guiding travelers to businesses, restaurants and landmarks.
“His plane gets in at 9:30,” the group’s manager responds.
Google is based here in Silicon Valley. But Sanjay G. Mavinkurve, one of the key engineers on this project, is not.
Mr. Mavinkurve, a 28-year-old Indian immigrant who helped lay the foundation for Facebook while a student at Harvard, instead works out of a Google sales office in Toronto, a lone engineer among marketers.
He has a visa to work in the United States, but his wife, Samvita Padukone, also born in India, does not. So he moved to Canada.
“Every American I’ve talked to says: ‘Dude, it’s ridiculous that we’re not doing everything we can to keep you in the country. We need people like you!’ ” he said.
“The people of America get it,” he added. “And in a matter of time, I think current lawmakers are going to realize how dumb they’re being.”
Immigrants like Mr. Mavinkurve are the lifeblood of Google and Silicon Valley, where half the engineers were born overseas, up from 10 percent in 1970. Google and other big companies say the Chinese, Indian, Russian and other immigrant technologists have transformed the industry, creating wealth and jobs.
Just over half the companies founded in Silicon Valley from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s had founders born abroad, according to Vivek Wadhwa, an immigration scholar working at Duke and Harvard.
The foreign-born elite dating back even further includes Andrew S. Grove, the Hungarian-born co-founder of Intel; Jerry Yang, the Chinese-born co-founder of Yahoo; Vinod Khosla of India and Andreas von Bechtolsheim of Germany, the co-founders of Sun Microsystems; and Google’s Russian-born co-founder, Sergey Brin.
But technology executives say that byzantine and increasingly restrictive visa and immigration rules have imperiled their ability to hire more of the world’s best engineers.
While it could be said that Mr. Mavinkurve’s case is one of a self-entitled immigrant refusing to live in the United States because his wife would not be able to work, he exemplifies how immigration policies can chase away a potential entrepreneur who aspires to create wealth and jobs here.
His case highlights the technology industry’s argument that the United States will struggle to compete if it cannot more easily hire foreign-born engineers.
“We are watching the decline and fall of the United States as an economic power — not hypothetically, but as we speak,” said Craig R. Barrett, the chairman of Intel.
Mr. Barrett blames a slouching education system that cannot be easily fixed, but he says a stopgap measure would be to let companies hire more foreign engineers.
“With a snap of the fingers, you can say, ‘I’m going to make it such that those smart kids — and as many of them as want to — can stay in the United States.’ They’re here today, they’re graduating today — and they’re going home today.”
He is opposed by staunch foes of liberalized immigration and by advocates for American-born engineers.
“There are probably two billion people in the world who would like to live in California and work, but not everyone in the world can live here,” said Kim Berry, an engineer who operates a nonprofit advocacy group for American-born technologists. “There are plenty of Americans to do these jobs.”
The debate has only sharpened as the country’s economic downturn has deepened. Advocates for American-born workers are criticizing companies that lay off employees even as they retain engineers living here on visas. But the technology industry counters that innovations from highly skilled workers are central to American long-term growth.
It is a debate well known to Google, and it is a deeply personal one to Mr. Mavinkurve.
An Eye on America
Sanjay Mavinkurve (pronounced MAY-vin-kur-VAY) was born in Bombay to working-class parents who soon moved to Saudi Arabia.
He thought everything important in life was American — from Baskin-Robbins and Nike Airs to the Hardees’s and Domino’s in the food court at the shopping mall. When in the car, he and his older brother played a game, naming all the things they could see that came from the United States.
“I know this sounds romantic, but it’s true: I always wanted to come to America,” said Mr. Mavinkurve, lanky, with bushy hair and an easy smile. “I admired everything in the way America portrayed itself — the opportunity, U.S. Constitution, its history, enterprising middle class.”
When he was 14, he and his brother were accepted at Western Reserve Academy, a private school in Cleveland, and received scholarships. During his senior year, Mr. Mavinkurve finished near the top of his class, ran cross-country and track, and scored 1560 out of 1600 on the SAT.
Next stop: Harvard. His freshman year, he won the prize for best essay written in French, a comparison of books by Annie Ernaux. His friends described him as social but with a quiet, determined work ethic. He took the toughest classes, and to make money he took a job cleaning toilets in the dorm.
He remained patriotic; on his dorm wall, he hung an American flag his brother had purchased at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written.
But he knew he could lose his immigration status after he graduated and his student visa expired. So he decided to major in computer science, which he understood to be in demand, and entered a four-year program for a master’s degree.
In 2003, his final year, he and three friends decided to build a Web site where college students could connect. Mr. Mavinkurve wrote the computer code. Eventually, the team disbanded, although some of its work evolved into Facebook. He had helped create the foundation for a product that has become a national sensation.
He started at Google in August 2003, as a product manager on the teams that developed Google News and the Google toolbar, then worked on the look and feel of the video search, and on the early versions of Google Maps for cellphones. He developed a reputation for helping design the way the products look, and making them simple to use.
Still, he had ample reason to worry about his visa status, given the limits on how many visas are issued for skilled immigrant labor.
It is a category whose significance has been growing since the 1920s, when politicians and business executives started recognizing the value of skilled immigrants. After World War II, companies began actively recruiting scientists, among them Nobel Prize winners, from around the world.
The emphasis on skilled labor was codified in the Hart-Celler Immigrant Act of 1965, which said that for 20 percent of immigration spots, candidates with certain skills would get preference to stay indefinitely, though that 20 percent also included the family members of those skilled immigrants.
(At the time, 74 percent of visas were given to people to be reunited with family members here, and 6 percent for political refugees from the Eastern Hemisphere.)
Reflecting the growing importance of technology — and responding to industry lobbying — in 1990 Congress set aside 65,000 temporary work visas, known as H-1B visas, for skilled workers. The visas, which are sponsored by companies on behalf of employees, permit three years of work, with an automatic three-year extension.
The limit was raised twice as the technology sector boomed, to 115,000 in 1999 and to 195,000 in 2001. But those temporary increases were not renewed for 2004, and the number of H-1B visas reverted to 65,000. (There are an additional 20,000 H1-B’s for people with graduate degrees from American universities.)
Since 2004, there has been a growing gap between the number of H-1B visas sought and those granted, through a lottery. In 2008, companies made 163,000 applications for the 65,000 slots. Google applied for 300 of them; 90 were denied.
In 2004, Mr. Mavinkurve was one of the lucky ones. “You can be very proud,” said the congratulatory e-mail message he received from an immigration lawyer at Google.
Good fortune followed at Google. In honor of the country that made it possible, on June 14, 2004, Flag Day, Mr. Mavinkurve made a laser print of an American flag and taped it to a white board in a Google hallway. The flag remains.
When Google went public that August, Mr. Mavinkurve was on his way to becoming a multimillionaire.
“I remember quantifying: for each dollar the stock goes up, I make more than my mother and father make together in a whole month at work,” he said.
Indeed, recent immigrants like those at Google have been successful.
“The thing distinctive about this generation, and I think unprecedented, is that they are coming with the highest level of skills in the leading industries,” said AnnaLee Saxenian of the school of information at the University of California, Berkeley.
She added that this was acute in Silicon Valley because of its entrepreneurial culture.
“You don’t see immigrant success at any other place in the U.S. at anywhere near the same scale,” she said.
The Guy With the Answer
The role Mr. Mavinkurve played in Google’s success was on stark display in early 2007, when the company’s map-making team faced a problem that even the best and brightest could not solve. The team met in Winnipeg, one of many conference rooms at Google headquarters named for foreign cities, like Algiers, Tunis and Haifa.
International tributes take other forms; over cubicles in one building hang flags from dozens of countries. The cafeteria, where much of the fare is ethnic, includes Indian and Chinese food stations.
These touches are appropriate. Of Google’s 20,000 workers, 2,000 were born abroad and work on temporary visas, while numerous others (the company would not disclose how many) have become American citizens or been granted permanent residency, the so-called green card status.
The work force is international, and so is the company’s market. With the mobile phone, Google believes it can expand in places where reaching the Internet over computers is difficult, and create advertising-supported versions of maps and other services so consumers can effectively use the services free, exchanging not money, but attention.
But back in late 2006, maps produced by the service were taking too long to download and appear on phones. As customers waited for the maps to form, they racked up huge bills from cellphone providers, which at the time were charging for every minute or every byte of data transferred.
Enter Mr. Mavinkurve, who floated an alternative: cut the number of colors in each map section to 20 or 40 from around 256. The user would not see the difference, but the load times would be reduced 20 percent.
Mr. Mavinkurve used a rare combination of creativity, analysis, engineering and an understanding of graphics to find a solution that had eluded the rest of the team, said Mark Crady, a manager in the maps group.
“He’s one of the best U.I. guys I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Crady said, referring to user interfaces. “Google Maps for mobile reflects Sanjay.”
Many innovators in Silicon Valley come from overseas; 42 percent of engineers with master’s degrees and 60 percent of those with engineering Ph.D.’s in the United States are foreign-born.
Foreigners also spur innovation by broadening understanding of consumers abroad. For instance, on the advice of Chinese-born workers, Google dotted its mobile maps for China with fast-food restaurants, which locals use as navigational landmarks.
When Google cannot get visas for people it wants to hire, it seeks to accommodate them in overseas offices, like the bureaus in Britain and Brazil from which map-team members attend meetings via video conference.
That work-around presents a number of drawbacks, one of which is especially apparent when one worker is in California and a colleague is in India.
“It’s 11 hours to Hyderabad,” Peter Norvig, director of research for Google, says of the time difference. “We do video conferences where we’re up late and they’re up early. Maybe a video conference is as good as a formal meeting, but there are no informal meetings. As a result, we lose the pace of work, and we lose trust.”
The larger risk is employees growing unhappy working at a distance, or foreign companies recruiting them.
For his part, Mr. Mavinkurve, in Toronto, typically talks with colleagues via video conference, e-mail or instant message. But he does fly twice a month to headquarters and once a month to Britain, his life a whirlwind of time zones and virtual interaction.
For Google and Mr. Mavinkurve, working here would be better. The trouble is, he fell in love.
Stuck North of the Border
He sits at a rooftop pub in Toronto, drinking Canadian amber beer. His wife, Ms. Padukone, 27, sips sangria. Evident between them is a respect, and slight emotional distance — understandable given their brief history together.
In 2006, while working for Google in Mountain View, Mr. Mavinkurve saw his future wife’s photo on the cover of a newsletter published by his Indian ethnic community, the Konkani. She was attending college in Singapore. He found her pretty, so he e-mailed her.
“For three months, we sent messages back and forth — but regularly,” she said.
“I hate talking on the phone,” he explained.
They arranged to meet while Mr. Mavinkurve was in Singapore during a flight layover on his way to India. They met for two hours, and connected.
They were engaged in January 2007 in India, their second meeting. They married there in 2008.
Like first-generation immigrants throughout American history, Mr. Mavinkurve has deep ethnic ties but is quickly assimilating. His wife is no different. But visa rules preclude her from working in the United States unless her husband gets a green card.
That process can take two years. So they live in Toronto, where she recently landed a job in finance.
Mr. Mavinkurve and his wife get little sympathy from Mr. Berry of the Programmers Guild, a nonprofit group with a volunteer staff that lobbies Congress on behalf of American-born high-tech workers.
To Mr. Berry, 50 — who lives in Sacramento, where he was born — it is unfathomable that Google, which receives one million résumés a year, cannot find enough qualified Americans. Further, he says immigrants depress wages.
By law, H-1B workers must be paid prevailing wages, but there are conflicting studies on whether some employers actually pay less when they control the fate of the sponsored workers. Even some of the supporters of allowing in more skilled immigrants say the H-1B system is flawed because it gives employers so much power over employees.
As the recession deepens, many people, including members of Congress, have criticized companies like Microsoft and Intel for laying off Americans while retaining visa holders. Google says it will cut 350 workers this year.
Mr. Berry says his skills and education — a bachelor’s degree in computer science from California State University, Sacramento — are denigrated by an industry that asserts that the best talent comes from overseas, via Ivy League schools. He worries about the employability of his children, who are studying engineering at top colleges, the University of Southern California and California Polytechnic State University.
Mr. Berry, for his part, works at a major technology company he declines to name because his employment agreement precludes him from talking about his employer when in his advocacy role.
He does not believe that skilled immigrants are essential to innovation. In fact, he argues the opposite. “In my experience,” he said, “foreign software programmers are less likely to step out of the box and present alternatives to management.”
His arguments have caught the attention of some on Capitol Hill. “Not all our own people are able to get good jobs right now,” said Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama and one of the members of Congress who oppose temporary work visas.
Mr. Sessions favors broad immigration reform that puts even greater emphasis on admitting people with skills. He even wants to ask visa applicants to take a scholastic aptitude test.
But he opposes temporary workers, whom he argues have incentive to work for less and return to their countries to share what they have learned. This puts him at odds with tech companies.
“They need to step up and look at what’s in the national interest,” he said.
Google estimates that it spends about $20 million a year on its immigration efforts — including lobbying, administration and fees to a law firm. Microsoft, while it would not disclose expenses, probably spends more. Its in-house immigration team numbers 20 lawyers and staff members.
On the political front, the tech industry lobbies Congress through an organization called Compete America, which includes titans like Intel, Microsoft, Google and Oracle.
“The next generation of Google engineers are being turned down,” says Pablo Chavez, Google’s senior policy counsel. “If a foreign-born engineer doesn’t come to Google, there is a very good chance that individual will return to India to compete against us.”
At the rooftop pub, Mr. Mavinkurve and his wife both express some anger. He thinks America should embrace him, given his contributions and taxpaying potential. After Google went public, he paid more than $200,000 in federal taxes on his income from salary and, mostly, sales of his shares, just in one year.
He misses interaction with colleagues. It hinders efficiency, slows work. He is physically drained from travel. He is frustrated that he cannot put down roots in America, and maybe start his own company, because he cannot leave Google, his visa sponsor.
He says he feels, on one hand, great gratitude that America gave him extraordinary opportunity. But he says he fulfilled his side of the bargain by striving and succeeding. “Dude, I love this country,” he said.
But he doesn’t feel loved back: “My devotion is unrequited.”
To Stay or to Go
On each of Mr. Mavinkurve’s twice-monthly visits to the United States (he keeps a room not far from Google), he meets with two friends at the Red Mango frozen yogurt shop on University Avenue in the heart of Palo Alto. Over scoops of green tea yogurt, they brainstorm for their next venture.
But he is not sure he can start a company — at least in America. Unless he gets his green card and his wife can work, he would be the only breadwinner, risking his savings, and he says they would be unhappy.
“Quitting Google means saying goodbye to my green card,” he said.
If America will not have him, he might have to stay in Canada. The proof is on the wall of the two-bedroom high-rise apartment he shares with his wife — who is pregnant — and his parents, who have moved in with them. On the living room wall is a Canadian flag.
“Quality stitching,” he said, fingering it.
Mr. Mavinkurve, who once hung American flags in his dorm room and then in Google’s hallway, still loves America. But the Internet-era immigrant, who moves so quickly between worlds, cannot decide where to land.
Where is Sanjay? Even he is not sure where he belongs.
“I’m not sure I want to go back,” he said of the possibility of moving back to the United States. “I’m not sure I can.”

April 09, 2009

U.S. Citizens Detained, Deported, or Convicted as Aliens

By: Jacqueline Stevens

The following summarizes key findings from my recent research on U.S. citizens who have been detained, deported, or convicted of immigration crimes predicated on alienage. I am compiling this in the context of other narratives from government officials, immigration attorneys, criminal public defense attorneys, and US citizens for submission to a peer-reviewed journal but thought this information should be publicly available in the meantime.

The reports on the US citizens detained in the Eloy and Florence areas are based on my personal inspection of more than 2,000 individual case files maintained by the nonprofit Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. They provide legal support for pro se representation to all detainees held in Florence or Eloy and maintain files for approximately one-third of the detainees.

Between March 23 and March 25, 2009 I went through all the case files for Florence detainees for 2008 and all the cases files that were classified as possible terminations for detainees held in Eloy from 2006-2008.

The FIRRP attorneys are responsible for much appreciated access to their files, and for putting up with a stranger occupying their conference room for three long days, but they did not direct my research in any way.

In addition to the results below, this research yielded many other disturbing findings I will describe in future postings.


--I saw files for at least 65 US citizens who were held in the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona between January 1, 2006 and December 31, 2008.

--I read files for at least 15 US citizens who were held in jails or ICE-run detention centers in nearby Florence, Arizona between January 1, 2008 and December 31, 2008.

--One percent of the cases in FIRRP files were for US citizens. If this rate holds for the United States, then about 10,000 US citizens have been put into removal proceedings since 2003.

--In at least five cases, DHS trial attorneys appealed the immigration judge's order terminating proceedings on grounds of US citizenship. In each of the cases the BIA affirmed the order terminating the deportation proceedings, but the delay added months to years to the time the US citizens were held in detention.

--In an additional five cases that have been previously unreported in the media, US citizens who had produced birth certificates indicating birth in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, or California were held as unlawful immigrants in detention centers in Eloy or Florence.

--There are many other cases in which individuals with proof of being citizens by birth are receiving adverse judgments by immigration judges and BIA judges who are writing decisions that defy law and evidence.


I saw documents in a file for a 17 year-old who was born in Colorado and raised in Mexico. When he returned to the United States with his birth certificate, a border patrol guard tore it up in front of him and told him it was fraudulent. He told the kid, Michael, not his real name, that he could dispute this by being handcuffed and brought to a detention center, or he could sign a document stipulating he was a Mexican citizen and be released.

Go to jail with scary, mean guys who just tore up your birth certificate or sign a get-out-of-jail-notsofree card? The kid chose the latter.

Michael tried returning again, was caught, and this time decided to stick it out. The immigration judge relied on his statement of Mexican citizenship signed under duress and ignored the three inch thick file documenting his birth in the United States, including a birth certificate, a photo from when the kid was about 8 years old in which you can see the exact same birth certificate in his hand, and a hospital report on his newborn reflexes taken several minutes after birth.

Michael has been removed to Mexico and stripped of his citizenship rights.


Today's LA Times article states: "'ICE does not detain United States citizens,' said spokesman Richard Rocha, adding that agents thoroughly investigated people's claims of citizenship. 'ICE only processes an individual for removal when all available facts indicate that the person is an alien.'"

Since in some cases, the DHS attorneys are themselves withdrawing the notices to appear, this statement is demonstrably false.

For instance, one guy was held in Eloy for two and half months in 2007 before the trial attorney filed a motion to withdraw the removal order on grounds of the detainee's US citizenship. I have documented similar cases and I know from conversations with DHS officials that they are also aware of this.

I have additional information on US citizens in removal proceedings--I've documented over 160 cases in recent years of individuals whose claims to US citizenship have been affirmed by an immigration judge, USCIS agent, jury, or federal judge and yet who at some point were detained, deported, or convicted of immigration crimes predicated on alienage.

Also, there are the potentially viable claims that cannot be pursued even as far as Michael's, who actually had a birth certificate.

Some files had what appear to be legitimate claims but the detainees decided not to pursue them. E.g., - a sleeve note by a Florence attorney states: Dad USC, died 20 years ago” “R has a cta which has USC dad's name on it. BUT R doesnt have anything else and probably not means to get it. If he wants he can turn in generic deriv. w. [illegible] that he is an USC. But w/o more data claim will be denied.”

The attorney was advising the client on a pro se basis and knew that an indigent felon didn't have the resources to track down the necessary documents to show his father's residence and work history in the United States.

Okay, that's all the new stuff for now. More to come.


Applications for Foreign Worker Visas are Down

Published: April 8, 2009

Federal immigration authorities said Wednesday that they were still accepting petitions by employers for temporary visas for foreign scientists and technology engineers for the next fiscal year, reflecting a sharp drop in applications over last year.

The announcement came as a surprise to some employers, researchers and immigration advocates, who had predicted that in spite of the recession and other factors, the quotas for petitions for the so-called H-1B visa would most likely be reached within the initial five-day period, which began on April 1.

The State Department issues up to 85,000 H-1B visas, including 65,000 for applicants with a bachelor’s degree or similar training and 20,000 for those with a master’s degree or higher from an American university.

Some analysts have attributed the decline to the economic downturn and to new restrictions on financial companies that received emergency federal aid.

But Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which handles the petitions, said that in 2006, the agency did not reach the regular H-1B cap for at least a month and did not reach the master’s cap until July.

In 2007, the regular cap was met in the first five-day filing period and the master’s degree cap was met within a month. Last year, the agency received about 163,000 petitions within the first five-day petition period, more than meeting the quotas.

“The last two years were anomalies,” Ms. Rhatigan said. “This is going back to normal.”

As part of the economic stimulus legislation, Congress added conditions for H-1B visas requiring banks that received bailout money to show that a newly hired immigrant is not displacing an American from a job for three months before and after the immigrant ishired.

Obama to Push Immigration Bills as One Priority

April 8, 2009

By: Julia Preston

While acknowledging that the recession makes the political battle more difficult, President Obama plans to begin addressing the country’s immigration system this year, including looking for a path for illegal immigrants to become legal, a senior administration official said on Wednesday.

Mr. Obama will frame the new effort — likely to rouse passions on all sides of the highly divisive issue — as “policy reform that controls immigration and makes it an orderly system,” said the official, Cecilia Muñoz, deputy assistant to the president and director of intergovernmental affairs in the White House.

Mr. Obama plans to speak publicly about the issue in May, administration officials said, and over the summer he will convene working groups, including lawmakers from both parties and a range of immigration groups, to begin discussing possible legislation for as early as this fall.

Some White House officials said that immigration would not take precedence over the health care and energy proposals that Mr. Obama has identified as priorities. But the timetable is consistent with pledges Mr. Obama made to Hispanic groups in last year’s campaign.

He said then that comprehensive immigration legislation, including a plan to make legal status possible for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, would be a priority in his first year in office. Latino voters turned out strongly for Mr. Obama in the election.

“He intends to start the debate this year,” Ms. Muñoz said.

But with the economy seriously ailing, advocates on different sides of the debate said that immigration could become a polarizing issue for Mr. Obama in a year when he has many other major battles to fight.

Opponents, mainly Republicans, say they will seek to mobilize popular outrage against any effort to legalize unauthorized immigrant workers while so many Americans are out of jobs.

Democratic legislative aides said that opening a full-fledged debate this year on immigration, particularly with health care as a looming priority, could weigh down the president’s domestic agenda.

Debate is still under way among administration officials about the precise timing and strategy. For example, it is unclear who will take up the Obama initiative in Congress.

No serious legislative talks on the issue are expected until after some of Mr. Obama’s other priorities have been debated, Congressional aides said.

Just last month, Mr. Obama openly recognized that immigration is a potential minefield.

"I know this is an emotional issue; I know it’s a controversial issue,” he told an audience at a town meeting on March 18 in Costa Mesa, Calif. “I know that the people get real riled up politically about this."

But, he said, immigrants who are long-time residents but lack legal status “have to have some mechanism over time to get out of the shadows.”

The White House is calculating that public support for fixing the immigration system, which is widely acknowledged to be broken, will outweigh opposition from voters who argue that immigrants take jobs from Americans. A groundswell among voters opposed to legal status for illegal immigrants led to the defeat in 2007 of a bipartisan immigration bill that was strongly supported by President George W. Bush.

Administration officials said that Mr. Obama’s plan would not add new workers to the American work force, but that it would recognize millions of illegal immigrants who have already been working here. Despite the deep recession, there is no evidence of any wholesale exodus of illegal immigrant workers, independent studies of census data show.

Opponents of legalization legislation were incredulous at the idea that Mr. Obama would take on immigration when economic pain for Americans is so widespread.

“It just doesn’t seem rational that any political leader would say, let’s give millions of foreign workers permanent access to U.S. jobs when we have millions of Americans looking for jobs,” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a group that favors reduced immigration. Mr. Beck predicted that Mr. Obama would face “an explosion” if he proceeded this year.

“It’s going to be, ‘You’re letting them keep that job, when I could have that job,’ ” he said.

In broad outlines, officials said, the Obama administration favors legislation that would bring illegal immigrants into the legal system by recognizing that they violated the law, and imposing fines and other penalties to fit the offense. The legislation would seek to prevent future illegal immigration by strengthening border enforcement and cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, while creating a national system for verifying the legal immigration status of new workers.

But administration officials emphasized that many details remained to be debated.

Opponents of a legalization effort said that if the Obama administration maintained the enforcement pressure initiated by Mr. Bush, the recession would force many illegal immigrants to return home. Dan Stein, the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said it would be “politically disastrous” for Mr. Obama to begin an immigration initiative at this time.

Anticipating opposition, Mr. Obama has sought to shift some of the political burden to advocates for immigrants, by encouraging them to build support among voters for when his proposal goes to Congress.

That is why Representative Luis V. Gutierrez, a Democrat from Mr. Obama’s hometown, Chicago, has been on the road most weekends since last December, traveling far outside his district to meetings in Hispanic churches, hoping to generate something like a civil rights movement in favor of broad immigration legislation.

Mr. Gutierrez was in Philadelphia on Saturday at the Iglesia Internacional, a big Hispanic evangelical church in a former warehouse, the 17th meeting in a tour that has included cities as far flung as Providence, R.I.; Atlanta; Miami; and San Francisco. Greeted with cheers and amens by a full house of about 350 people, Mr. Gutierrez, shifting fluidly between Spanish and English, called for immigration policies to preserve family unity, the strategic theme of his campaign.

At each meeting, speakers from the community, mainly citizens, tell stories of loved ones who were deported or of delays and setbacks in the immigration system. Illegal immigrants have not been invited to speak.

Mr. Gutierrez’s meetings have all been held in churches, both evangelical and Roman Catholic, with clergy members from various denominations, including in several places Muslim imams. At one meeting in Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, officiated.

One speaker on Saturday, Jill Flores, said that her husband, Felix, an immigrant from Mexico who crossed the border illegally, had applied for legal status five years ago but had not been able to gain it even though she is an American citizen, as are their two children. Now, Ms. Flores said, she fears that her husband will have to leave for Mexico and will not be permitted to return for many years.

In an interview, Mr. Gutierrez rejected the idea that the timing is bad for an immigration debate. “There is never a wrong time for us,” he said. “Families are being divided and destroyed, and they need help now.”

Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting.

April 06, 2009

A Shift to Make the Border Safe, From the Inside Out

April 6, 2009

By: Ginger Thompson

LAREDO, Tex. — The five burly, sweat-soaked customs agents were in unfamiliar territory.
They had come from frigid ports in Baltimore and Boston to work in the sweltering heat of the Southwestern border. But the biggest change was that they were looking at what was leaving the country, rather than what was coming in.
“You know, early this week I met with President Obama, and this morning I met with President Calderón of Mexico,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told them during a tour last week. “And you guys are at the cutting edge of something new we’re trying to do to make the border safer.”
Law enforcement officials have been cracking down on border crime for years. President Bill Clinton had Operation Gatekeeper. And President George W. Bush built a wall.
But Ms. Napolitano’s initiative to send an additional 360 agents to the 2,000-mile border with Mexico, announced two weeks ago, is intended not only to respond to growing concerns about national security, she said, but also to change the way Americans view the threat.
Agents are still assigned to stop drugs and illegal immigrants from entering the United States. But hundreds of additional agents are being redeployed to stop the weapons and cash that flow into Mexico.
“We understand that this port needs to move, that time is money, especially when it comes to trade,” said Ms. Napolitano, standing in the shadow of a line of tractor-trailers that extended as far as the eye could see. “But from now on, when trucks come into this port, they are going to see something they haven’t seen before, and that’s southbound inspections.”
The new border policy is one of many ways the hard-charging Ms. Napolitano has begun to refocus the objectives of her sprawling agency. Though the Homeland Security Department was established after the Sept. 11 attacks, Ms. Napolitano rarely uses the word terrorism, and she has said she does not intend to practice the “politics of fear.”
She has said her agency will devote as much attention to preparing for natural disasters as for “man-caused disasters,” her euphemistic term for terrorism. She made public her disapproval of an immigration raid of a mechanics shop in Washington State, freed the immigrants who had been detained, and gave them work permits. Her actions sent a signal that future enforcement would focus on employers who rely on illegal immigrants, rather than on the workers.
Here on the border, which has given rise to some of the country’s most contentious debates, Ms. Napolitano has essentially turned previous policies upside-down, warning Americans that what leaves the country is as much a risk to their security as what comes in.
Her trip last week to the border and to Mexico, to begin working out the details of the $400 million effort, was a mix of high diplomacy and the kind of stumping she once did as governor of Arizona. She shook hands with agents in the field, inspected the border from a Black Hawk helicopter, held meetings with small-town mayors and police chiefs, attended a news conference with her Mexican counterparts, and spent more than an hour with President Felipe Calderón of Mexico.
The trip offered a glimpse of the changes Ms. Napolitano has begun making at the Homeland Security Department and revealed how some of her own views have shifted since she took her new job. Ms. Napolitano was once a leading opponent of the Bush administration’s decision to build some 600 miles of fencing along the border. In an interview, she said she had come to see that the fence has “helped us get operational control of some areas.”
As governor, she was among the first to call for the deployment of the National Guard to help stop smuggling. Now, she said, “minds were open” to a request for troops from Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a Republican. But she said she wanted Mr. Perry to explain how the troops would be used.
On the day after she landed in San Diego during her trip last week, a New Mexico newspaper questioned whether she had forgotten her roots.
“What is it about bureaucrats that makes them compulsive spenders?” wrote The Clovis News Journal, referring to Ms. Napolitano’s decision to complete the final 60 miles of fencing along the border, which has cost an estimated $4 million per mile. “As Arizona governor she famously made light of the project, saying, ‘You show me a 12-foot fence and I’ll show you a 13-foot ladder.’ ”
Asked about the editorial, Ms. Napolitano said there was little she could do to stop the fence’s construction because the project had been approved by Congress before she became homeland security secretary. Now that she is in charge, she said, the agency would invest in fences only as part of a comprehensive strategy that included technology and “boots on the ground.”
“What doesn’t make sense,” she said, “is some notion that if you build a fence along the border, you have a policy for immigration and border security.”
Some Washington lawmakers have also expressed concerns about Ms. Napolitano’s efforts. Conservatives complain that they are not aggressive enough to stop violence from spilling across the border, and immigrant advocates argue that they are the same strategies that have hardly made a dent in the drug trade but put hundreds of illegal immigrants at peril.
The views are familiar to Ms. Napolitano, who spent her time in Arizona fighting Washington gridlock and continues that approach with initiatives that for the most part do not require Congressional funding or approval.
Here in Laredo, Ms. Napolitano learned that the heightened border security might already be yielding results. A few hours before her arrival, the authorities conducting southbound inspections stopped an American couple and a 5-year-old child in a car carrying 10 grenades, nearly $122,000 in cash, a barrel for a sniper rifle and a cache of high-caliber ammunition, officials said.
The man told the authorities that he was a former Marine and that he had obtained the weapons from a military friend linked to drug smugglers in Michigan, officials said.
Climbing aboard her airplane to return to Washington, Ms. Napolitano boasted, “We said we were going to do this, and we’re doing it.”

April 03, 2009

Same-Sex Partners Mired in Deportation 'Nightmare'

PACIFICA – Shirley Tan, a petite stay-at-home mother of twins, is wearing pink slippers on her feet and a black electronic bracelet around her left ankle.

"I feel like a criminal," said Tan, sitting on the sofa of the ocean-view home she shares with her longtime partner, Jaylynn Mercado, their 12-year-old sons and Mercado's mother, Renee.

In the eyes of immigration authorities, Tan is in the country illegally. Federal courts have denied her bid for asylum. But beyond that court battle, she argues that the law discriminates against her because she is a lesbian – and cannot be sponsored for citizenship by her partner.

Later this month, unless her pleas to congressional leaders and the courts are successful, Tan, 43, will be deported to her native Philippines, more than two decades after she fled a murderous relative and began a life in the United States.

"It's a shocking thing for all of us," said Mercado, who works in commercial insurance. "All this time, we thought she was legal … . This is a nightmare."

Things likely would be different if Mercado were a man, according to legal experts.

Tan, who came legally to the United States as a visitor in 1989, wed Mercado in 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom opened City Hall to same-sex unions. Those marriages later were declared invalid, and this past November California voters approved Proposition 8, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman. The matter now is under consideration by the state Supreme Court.

If Mercado, a U.S. citizen, were a man, she could sponsor Tan for legal permanent residency, their lawyer said. But because federal law limits the definition of marriage to a man and a woman, the couple has no such option.

Congress is debating a change that would add same-sex "permanent partners" to the list of family members that a citizen or legal resident could sponsor for immigration. The Uniting American Families Act is pending on behalf of thousands of gay and lesbian couples facing immigration issues. But the clock is ticking fast for Tan.

"If this were a heterosexual couple, things never would have gone this far," said immigration lawyer Phyllis Beech, who is representing the couple in their appeal of the deportation order issued in January. "Shirley married her partner and has been with her for more than 20 years, but in the eyes of the law, it doesn't mean anything."

So, barring a reprieve, Tan must report to immigration authorities in San Francisco on April 22 and board a plane to a place that she said feels foreign and frightening. Until that hour comes, she said, she refuses to pack her bags.

"We are trying to be optimistic," said Tan, who wears a diamond wedding ring on her left hand. "We are praying that everything works out … . The Philippines is a strange country to me now."

Tan left the Philippines in 1989, fleeing a cousin who had been convicted 10 years earlier of murdering her mother and sister and attempting to kill Tan. The cousin had just been released from prison. Tan suffered head wounds and fractures in the rampage and still feared him, she said.

After moving to the Bay Area to live with Mercado, a naturalized citizen from the Philippines who knew Tan's family, Tan applied for political asylum. Immigration authorities denied her case, arguing that the cousin had served his sentence, was not a part of government and did not represent a political threat. For years, the case bounced back and forth between the Bureau of Immigration Appeal and the federal district court. All the while, Tan and Mercado were assured by their lawyer that such matters take a great deal of time and patience, they said.

While they awaited a verdict, Tan got a work permit and a real estate license, and she gave birth to twins after she and Mercado pursued in vitro fertilization.

"It was the first time in my life that I cried tears of joy," said Mercado, who was in the delivery room when the boys were born.

Based on conversations with their original immigration attorney, the couple believed Tan's immigration case was still pending when agents from U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement rang the doorbell of their home in January.

The officers produced a deportation order dated May 2002, a document that Tan said she never knew existed. They said she was in the country illegally, handcuffed her and took her to jail in downtown San Francisco.

"It was terrifying," Tan said. She was released after five hours with a monitoring bracelet and a promise to check in with immigration authorities three times a week until her departure from the country.

Laurie Haley, a spokeswoman for the immigration agency, said she cannot comment on the case because of privacy issues.

"We are strong members of this community," Mercado said. "Never in our wildest dreams did we think anything like this would happen to us."

The couple has been in contact in recent weeks with representatives of Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, requesting that they introduce a private bill on their behalf or otherwise intervene in the case. On Thursday, a day before Tan had been ordered to leave the country, she and Mercado learned that thanks to Speier's intervention, authorities will give them until April 22 to try to resolve matters. But they still worry.

Beech has filed a motion to reopen the case but said it is unclear whether it will be addressed before Tan's ordered departure date. If Tan is deported, she will be banned from the United States for 10 years. If she is forced to leave, Mercado said, her family will reluctantly follow.

On Thursday afternoon, Tan and Mercado remained in limbo, hoping for the best but fearing the worst.

"We're trying to be positive. But we're scared that our family will be torn apart," said Mercado. "We are just living day to day."

For U.S. Immigration, 'Partnered' Doesn't Count

hirley Tan has been with her partner, Jay Mercado, for 23 years. The Pacifica women have twin 12-year-old sons and have been registered domestic partners since 1991.

That means nothing to the federal government, which recognizes only a marriage between a man and a woman. Federal authorities ordered Tan, who is not a U.S. citizen, to be deported from San Francisco to her native Philippines this morning.

But with the help of her congresswoman, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, Tan received a three-week stay of the deportation order, allowing her to remain with her family until April 22.

"This is good news, since we now have a little more time for the legal process to work," said Tan's attorney, Phyllis Beech. "If this was not a same-sex couple, the spouse of an American citizen would be able to immigrate fairly quickly and fairly easily. Instead, they're being discriminated against because they are lesbians."

Under the federal Defense of Marriage Act, domestic partnerships and even legal same-sex marriages, such as those last year in California and which still occur in Massachusetts, aren't recognized as valid in immigration cases.

"I just really feel helpless," Mercado said. "If I was a man, none of this would be happening."

A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency does not comment on individual cases.

For Tan, 43, the whole affair is a shock. After meeting Mercado in the United States in 1986, she returned from the Philippines on a visitor's visa in 1989 to be with her lover.

In 1995, she applied for political asylum, saying she feared for her life in her home country. She had been shot nearly two decades earlier by a relative in a dispute over an inheritance.

"I was 14 when it happened, and I was shot in the head and beaten," she said. "It's a miracle that I'm alive."

Any deportation action was stayed while the asylum request was being considered. But when the Board of Immigration Appeals turned down the request in 2002 and ordered Tan deported, no one - not even her previous attorney - told her.

"She and her family even received a security clearance to tour the White House in 2005," said Beech, a Fresno attorney who took over Tan's case this year. "They checked her fingerprints and never said there was a deportation order outstanding."

The respite ended Jan. 28, when immigration agents showed up at Tan's home in Pacifica to take her into custody.

"I'm not an activist," Tan said. "We're just common people living a peaceful and happy life, and then this happens."

It's a familiar story, said Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, which works to end discrimination in immigration law against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and HIV-positive people.

"We hear every day from American citizens whose families are being torn apart because their partner is being deported," she said.

A survey commissioned by Immigration Equality found that in 2000 there were about 37,000 same-sex couples in the country where one partner was a foreign national. About half of these couples had children under 18.

"The average age of these people is 38, so we're talking about long-term relationships," Tiven said.

Federal officials can look past immigration violations when heterosexual couples have children, Beech said.

"Even on an overstay (like Tan's), Congress has always taken the position that maintaining the family unit is so important that a noncitizen spouse can be legalized virtually without penalty," she added.

Since 2000, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., has introduced bills to allow the "permanent partners" of U.S. citizens the same avenue to permanent resident status spouses now have.

The bills have never made it out of committee, but that could change, said Ilan Kayatsky, a spokesman for Nadler.

"The landscape is changing with a president who supports the idea of immigration change and more progressives in both chambers," he said.

So far, 93 members of the House and 17 senators have signed on as co-sponsors of either HR1024, the Uniting American Families Act of 2009, or its companion measure in the Senate, S424 by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

The stay of the deportation order opens some paths for Tan. Her attorney is still working on efforts to get the appeals board to reverse its decision, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office is reviewing the case to see if anything can be done for Tan.

But those efforts might not be enough to keep her off that plane to the Philippines later this month. And if that happens, her entire family will pull up their roots to follow.

"We'll move, and we'll be together," Mercado said. "We raised our family, and we won't let anyone tear us apart."