Perspectives on the Bush Administration's New Immigrant Guestworker Proposal: The Time for Immigration Reform Is Now

By Germain, Regina | Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Perspectives on the Bush Administration's New Immigrant Guestworker Proposal: The Time for Immigration Reform Is Now


Germain, Regina, Denver Journal of International Law and Policy


President Bush did something quite remarkable on January 7th, 2004 when he proposed dramatic changes to our immigration system. (1) His proposal has been attacked as too generous by some (2) and not generous enough by others. (3) The main group backing the proposal has been the U.S. business community. (4) The American public is split on this issue (5), as I would imagine the people in this room are, as well. Today you'll have the opportunity to hear about the proposal and perhaps some other proposals in the works. Before we dive in, I want to tell you a short story about my first experience in the practice of immigration law and the lessons I learned from the last time the U.S. attempted comprehensive immigration reform.

I have been an immigration lawyer for 14 years, in many different capacities--as an associate in a large law firm, as the sole lawyer in a small nonprofit, as a Senior Legal Counselor for the United Nations refugee agency and as a clinical teacher both at Georgetown University and here, at the University of Denver. My very first experience with immigration law occurred during law school and it is that experience which probably sealed my fate and caused me to dedicate my legal career to serving immigrants. After my first year of law school, I accepted a summer position as a legal intern with the Illinois Migrant Legal Assistance Project.

It was the summer of 1987, Ronald Reagan was President of the United States and it was an exciting time to be practicing immigration law. Congress had just passed a law that allowed farm workers and other undocumented immigrants who had resided in the United States for five years to obtain legal status. (6) About 3 million did so. The quid pro quo was that from that point on all employers had to request documents from employees that demonstrate they are authorized to work in the United States. (7) For me, it was a baptism by fire into immigration practice. There were millions of immigrants who needed legal help; there were new regulations being issued which even experienced lawyers had difficulty comprehending (and which sometimes misapplied the law (8); and there were bewildered employers who wanted to follow the new law, but did not know how.

I learned three important lessons that summer:

1. The practice of immigration law can be extremely rewarding. Hardworking, law abiding individuals and families who had lived in the United States for many years could finally legalize their status and improve their lives.

2. Every immigration benefit has a cost attached and often unintended consequences, too. Requiring employers to check identity documents created a tremendous amount of paperwork for U.S. businesses, but, as we know, it did not actually deter undocumented immigrants from working in the United States. What it certainly did do was create a booming black market for false documents.

3. I saw firsthand how vital immigrants are to our country, especially the agricultural sector. Our nation would grind to a halt without immigrants willing to do the least desirable jobs in our society.

Today we have between 9 and 10 million (9) undocumented immigrants in our country. Most are from Mexico (about 55%). (10) About a quarter are from Central America (22%). (11) They make up 26% of the total foreign born population. (12) Interestingly, they are almost 40% of the foreign born population in Colorado. (13)

What have we done about the influx of undocumented immigrants? Since 1993, the amount of money spent on border enforcement has more than quintupled. (14) The FY 2005 budget for the two immigration enforcement agencies is over $10 billion. (15)

Despite increased border enforcement and increased risks in traveling to the United States, undocumented immigration has continued at a rate of 500,000 immigrants per year. As a result there has been a dramatic increase in human smuggling and also an increase in the number of people who die while attempting to cross the border--1,896 people have died over last 5 years trying to cross the South West U. …

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