Immigrants greet plan with concern, confusion

Posted: May 19, 2007

From an Asian contractor to Mexican mushroom workers, undocumented immigrants throughout the region anxiously wondered yesterday how Congress' proposed overhaul of immigration laws could affect their American dreams.

"It's good news," said "Charlie" Zhang, 50, a South Philadelphia construction contractor who sends money home to his family in China's Fujian province. Zhang slipped into the United States illegally in 1991 and is eager to obtain a green card.

Not everyone was as enthusiastic.

"It's killing our hope," said an East Camden bodega owner from Mexico, disheartened by the $5,000 in fines and waiting period of more than a decade that immigrants seeking citizenship could face.

The 36-year-old woman, who declined to give her name because she feared prosecution, entered the country illegally 14 years ago.

Local immigrant advocates and their constituents expressed confusion over specifics of the evolving legislation, which creates a pathway to citizenship along with hurdles.

"I think people are very excited about the prospect of being able to have legal status, but most just have a lot of questions," said Regan Cooper, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigrant and Citizenship Coalition.

"When you look at the proposed legalization program," Cooper said, "who pays the $5,000? Is that $5,000 per person or per family?"

Who must "touch back" inside their home country to qualify for a "Z visa" in order to reenter the United States legally?

"If it's just the head of the household, will there be waivers if that person is the sole economic support [of a family]? What about dependent children? . . . Questions are peppered throughout every one of these provisions," she said.

Fernando, 29, an undocumented worker at a Chester County mushroom farm who gave only his first name, said he sneaked into the United States for job opportunities. His wife and children, 9 and 1, are in Mexico. Fernando sends them money and wants to legalize his status so they can move here.

The $5,000 fee and the proposed bill's lower priority on family reunification make him doubt they will ever come north.

"In a whole year, I couldn't save that much money. I spend money here and I spend money there," he said in Spanish at the Farmworkers Support Committee office in Kennett Square.

Besides, he said, "who is going to ensure that if we pay the money, we will get the visa? We are living on promises."

The legislation requires beefing up enforcement and tightening the nation's southwestern border with new surveillance technology, among other measures, before the new procedures for legalizing immigrants would take effect.

"Forget the $5,000. Forget the touch-back provisions. I just don't think folks are going to sign up," said James Orlow, 71, of Philadelphia, the former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

"If it takes five years to tighten up the borders and an eight-year process" before someone even can apply for a green card, "that's 13 years on a 'trust-me,' " he said.

It is estimated that 12 million people live illegally in the United States. A spokesman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) said that, in the last year, 404 people have been deported from Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia and 841 have been deported from New Jersey.

Nationally, 13,308 were deported. The number includes immigrants who entered the country illegally and, in some cases, committed crimes here.

If apprehended, those who entered illegally are incarcerated, not simply cited and let go pending trial. "Catch-and-release has ended," said John Kelleghan, agent in charge of the Philadelphia ICE office.

Wendell Young IV, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers 1776, said his union does not knowingly accept undocumented members. But, like many labor leaders, he sympathizes with the immigrants.

"They aren't the villains," Young said. Equally at fault are employers who hire them to cut costs, he said.

"Why only levy the fines on the workers? There's just something wrong with that," he said.

The proposed legislation downplays reuniting families in visa decisions and establishes a point system based on an applicant's education, professional skills and other factors.

Renato Lima, 32, a New Jersey resident who entered illegally from Uberlandia, Brazil, works in construction and dreams of bringing his wife and 5-year-old child here. The point system discriminates against simple laborers, he said.

"We can bring a lot of values to this country," he said of people like himself. "We can boost the economy, and all are willing to do it."


Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Lou Yi, Robert Moran, Dwight Ott, Mari A. Schaefer and Jane M. Von Bergen.

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