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Juan González: Immigration Debate “A Battle Over What America Will Look Like in 21st Century”

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As tens of thousands rallied on Capitol Hill for humane reform Wednesday, more details emerged on the bipartisan immigration plan being drafted in the Senate. The deal will reportedly require greatly increased surveillance and policing near the U.S.-Mexico border. According to The Wall Street Journal, U.S. immigration officials would have to certify complete monitoring of the southern U.S. border and a 90 percent success rate in blocking unlawful entry in certain areas. Only then could the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants apply for permanent residency. The process is expected to take at least 10 years. Juan González, Democracy Now! co-host and New York Daily News columnist, calls the looming congressional debate on immigration “a battle over what will America look like in the 21st century.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan González, co-host on Democracy Now! and columnist with the New York Daily News on Wednesday wrote a piece called “With Much at Stake, Gang of Eight Senators’ Immigration Bill, Due to Be Unveiled Soon, Awaits Uphill Climb.” Juan, talk about what is happening here. You’ve been covering this very closely.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I think the first thing that people have to understand is that what’s at stake here, what this battle—which is going to go on for all the spring and summer and probably into the fall, is really a battle over what will America look like in the 21st century, what will be the—who is legitimately in the country, and who will be legitimately allowed to come into the country over the next several decades.

And it’s not the first kind of battle of this kind. The '86 immigration reform bill actually was not fully comprehensive. We had a huge battle in the ’60s, 1965; in the 1920s; and then even further back, in the 1880s with the Chinese Exclusion Act, which for 60 years then excluded any kind of immigration of Chinese and other folks from Asia into the country. So, this is one of the many battles we've had in American history over the issue of immigration.

And I think the key thing to understand about this proposal, the Gang of Eight proposal, that no one has yet seen a bill. Everyone is talking about the agreements that have been reached, but no one has actually seen the language of the law. And the devil is always in the details when it comes to legislation, so that what we have heard so far about the compromise proposal of the Gang of Eight—and remember, there will be a separate bill adopted in the House of Representatives, which will be undoubtedly far weaker than whatever the Gang of Eight come up with in the Senate, and those have to be then reconciled and then signed into law by the president. So this is the beginning of a long process.

And—but what we do know is that this—even this bill, the so-called—the compromise bill is going to be heavy on border security. It’s going to delay the process by which those who are undocumented in the country will be able to establish their legal status, and even citizenship, a minimum of 10 years. So in the first 10 years, there will be beefed-up border security, more requirements, more spending by the government, an already enormous sum—$17.9 billion was spent last year alone on border security in the United States. That will be increased. And the border has got to be 100 percent under surveillance, according to Congress, and there have to be triggers before anyone can then be moved onto permanent residency status—not citizenship—permanent residency status.

And why are they holding that up to 10 years? Well, one of the things the immigration advocates don’t want to admit is that by moving it to 10 years, you will not have any cost associated with immigration reform, because Congress only projects 10-year budgets. So that means that—because once the undocumented become permanent residents, they get—qualify, for instance, for health insurance and—as permanent residents. So the Democrats and some of the proponents of immigration reform don’t want the cost to scuttle whatever legislation comes forward. So, that’s why they’re willing to accept an inordinately long period for the undocumented even to become permanent residents.

And then the question of when will they actually become citizens—and that’s the other, I think, dark secret about this—is that two-thirds of all the undocumented in the United States come from one country: Mexico. And the problem is that Mexico, when you talk about people going to the back of the line, to those people who are waiting in other countries to get visas into the country, the waiting time right now—there are people in Mexico right now who have been waiting 20 years to be admitted into the country. It’s the longest line in the world. So you’re telling the two-thirds of the undocumented that they have to get to the back of a 20-year line to be admitted into the United States. You’re looking at the possibility that many Mexican undocumented may be waiting 25, 30 years, unless the government also increases the country caps, so that—so that the cap for Mexico or China or India, the countries that always have the longest lines, will be lifted so that you shorten the line that people have to get to the back of. So that’s a whole issue just in terms of the immigration reform.

But then there’s another complex issue that’s also going to be in this bill, which is who gets to come into the country in the future and how. And there are actually going to be three provisions for labor flow, that people are not paying much attention to. One is for farm workers. One is for other unskilled workers, like hotel workers, service workers. And then another one is for the scientific and technical, what’s called the H-1B visas, those who come in with professional technical skills. Each of these are going to have sharp increases in the number of people admitted.

As many as 200,000 people will be admitted in the low-skill categories and sponsored by their employers. But then the question becomes, is: If you’re sponsored by your employer, do you have portability? In other words, if you come in sponsored by one employer, do have to stay with that employer in order to stay in the country, or can you move your visa from one employer to another? What kind of job protections will you have? What kind of minimum wages will you be subjected to? Same thing for the farm workers.

And then the other issue is the H-1B workers. Right now there are about 85,000 people allowed into the country every year under professional or skilled, scientific visas. And the business community, Silicon Valley, wants to eliminate all caps. They just want to be able to bring in as many people as possible, highly educated, to come into the country. They want to change American immigration policy from “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” to “Give me your well-educated, those who can afford to pay either to come to a graduate school in the United States to get a quick visa into the country for permanent status or who can just basically pay their way into the country,” and so, “Give me your affluent and your well-educated.” So, that is a—and the numbers that are decided on that is going to have a real impact on what future immigration flow into the country will look like.

So, all of these things are being debated in this bill. It’s not just like the undocumented. It’s the question of what will the future flows of immigration to the country. And then there are like little side issues, like what about the several thousand children that are now in foster care because their parents were deported, and yet they are American citizens? Will those parents be allowed to come back into the country to reunite with the children that were basically taken away from them? So there’s a lot of stuff.

And whatever comes out of the Senate, remember, is only the Senate version of the bill. It will then have to be reconciled with a House version. So that’s why I always tell people, pay attention to the details, continue to lobby your congressmen and your senators about what portions or particular aspects of the bill you think are important, because this is really a bill that will determine the future composition of the United States in the 21st century.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Juan, the composition of the Gang of Eight, how they were chosen?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, they basically came together. You’ve got John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and I forget the fourth Republican right now. And then you’ve got—Chuck Schumer is the leader of the group. He’s the—along with Bob Menendez. And they basically are a group that is trying to at least craft a bipartisan proposal in the Senate. But again, as I keep reinforcing, that’s only the Senate. You’ve still got to see what the House comes up with, and then the two have to be reconciled. So the weaker the Senate version is, that will be the floor, the minimum, of what the bill would be like. It’s definitely going to get weakened after the—the final will be weakened compared to what the Senate version is.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Flake, fourth one.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jeff Flake is the fourth one on the Republican side, yes. So, it’s a big battle, and people need to pay close attention to the details of what happens.

AMY GOODMAN: Dick Durbin, Democrat, Michael Bennet from Colorado—


AMY GOODMAN: —as well, on the Democratic side, along with Menendez.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Along with Schumer and Menendez, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course we’ll continue to follow this issue. Juan González—we’ll link to your article at the—at our website, at democracynow.org—has written a piece in the New York Daily News about this legislation, that no one has seen yet, at least not the—not outside the Gang of Eight and their friends.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to talk about what’s happening in Egypt. Stay with us.

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