The word ‘amnesty’ might misrepresent new immigration legislation.

May 10, 2013

A US senate committee has introduced an immigration reform plan that includes a path to citizenship for immigrants living illegally in the U.S. Opponents claim that such a path rewards people who have broken the law by giving them amnesty.

Under current law, many immigrants seeking residency have to leave the country. Sometimes for ten years or more.  But this deportation often has side-effects.

Wyoming Public Radio's Luke Hammons has more.

LUKE HAMMONS: At a farm off of Highway 20 south of Worland sits an orange trailer. A few children’s bikes lie on the ground. Behind the trailer, despite a dusting of spring snow, the fields are ready for barley to be planted.

The family who lives in the trailer, Veronica and Fernando Aguayo and their three daughters, recently went through an extremely difficult period when Fernando, the main wage earner of the family, was forced to return to Mexico in his effort to become a U.S. resident.

Fernando married Veronica, a U.S. resident, in Mexico in 2004. After Veronica became pregnant, she returned to her hometown of Worland.  A few months later, Fernando crossed the border without a visa to join her in Wyoming.

FERNANDO AGUAYO: I want to come to the U.S.A., because, you know, you see the news and the TV and Mexico’s just… a dangerous place to live, and I really don’t want to raise my family in a place like that.

HAMMONS: Their child was born, and they were married in Wyoming. With the use of a fabricated name and social security number, Fernando found work on local farms.

Life was good for the family for a few years. Fernando learned to irrigate and got a better job on another farm. He and Veronica had another daughter. They weren’t rich, but they weren’t in debt and had enough to buy a truck as well as gifts for their children.

But Fernando was frightened of being deported and sent away from his family. So he began the process of becoming a legal resident.

After months of filing paperwork, Fernando's lawyer told him he had to go to the U.S. Consulate in Juarez, Mexico to get his resident visa issued.  After he arrived in Juarez, immigration officials told him he had to wait one year for his case to be heard, and even then, he still might not be allowed to enter the U.S. for 10 years.

Immigration lawyer, David Kolko says that when Fernando left the country to receive his visa, he triggered another law called 'unlawful presence.’ Unlawful presence means that Fernando broke the law when he crossed the border in 2004 without a visa. His punishment is being barred from reentry into the U.S. for ten years.

But Kolko says he could get this punishment waived by proving his family of U.S. citizens would suffer extreme hardship in his absence.

DAVID KOLKO: Frequently the family is relying upon the foreign national’s income or assets in order to support the family unit.

HAMMONS: Kolko says that removing the main wage earner can put a family on welfare.  He adds that the family suffers because suddenly a home with two parents only has one. Other hardships might include Fernando’s daughters receiving inferior educations if the family is forced to live in Mexico.

After Fernando left, Veronica and the girls were asked to leave the house that had been provided by Fernando’s employer.

Even working 16 hour days, Veronica’s job as a nurse’s assistant did not cover her debts. Soon the family found themselves in low income housing… selling everything they could to pay the bills.

VERONICA AGUAYO: I sold our dining room table. I sold our couches. We were eating on the floor. So on the low income housing all we had was our beds, our clothes, and that’s it.

HAMMONS:  The family fell deep into debt. Fernando began to send money from Mexico to the U.S. But it wasn’t enough. Veronica said on top of the fees she and Fernando paid to immigrationservices, she had to pay…

VERONICA AGUAYO: …medical bills, lawyers, and people who lent us money, my parents. I mean, I was in collections. I could not pay our truck payment, I couldn’t do anything.

HAMMONS: Eventually, the emotional and economic strain of being away from her husband became too much.  Veronica moved with her daughters to Mexico.  She left the U.S. with some serious questions.

VERONICA AGUAYO: If my husband was working, and I was working, and we were doing great, why would they throw him out? I wouldn’t have needed the assistance, if they hadn’t done that.

HAMMONS: Former Wyoming U.S. Senator, Alan Simpson, is knowledgeable about the subject. He worked a controversial immigration reform measure nearly 20 years ago. He says one of the challenges to passing this bill was figuring out what to do with people like Fernando.

ALAN SIMPSON: The word amnesty just gets everybody all worked into a frenzy.  (Impersonating people in a frenzy.)  These people are here illegally, by God, and then we’re not gonna give them a break. If they came here, they’re like a burglar, snuck into our house and stole from us, and they just rape and pillage and steal and, you know, that’s the pitch.

HAMMONS: But is the current political climate similar to that of Simpson’s tenure, or even 2007, when President Bush failed to pass immigration reform?  Co-director of the Center for International Human Rights Law and Advocacy, Noah Novogrodsky, says the word amnesty is used less and less, and that it is inappropriate to describe the new laws proposed by the Gang of 8.

NOAH NOVOGRODSKY: Amnesty suggests to me that you’re giving people a free pass for past illegal conduct, and that is not what the proposed legislation will do. 

HAMMONS: Novogrodsky says the proposed legislation will fine those living here illegally as well as create a significant waiting period for them to become residents.  He adds that most Economists say that, with few exceptions, illegal immigrants have been good for the U.S economically.

NOVOGRODSKY: Think of it this way, they are paying into social security and they’re not taking out from it.  So illegal immigrants add an awful lot to the economy, and many economists have put a price tag on that, and it is billions of dollars of benefit to the economy.      

HAMMONS: Meanwhile, after waiting a year in Mexico, Fernando qualified for his resident visa. He now has a farm job like the one he had before. He says things are more difficult now, because of the bills that mounted while he was out of the country. But he’s glad to be back with his family, and remains positive that they will soon pay off their debtors.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Luke Hammons.