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The ABC's Of Immigration – Earned Legalization Proposals

What is “earned legalization”?


"Earned legalization" is the term describing a work-benefits program for undocumented aliens in the United States, where work is rewarded with the opportunity to receive legal status. Undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for a certain period of time can earn their legal status in the U.S. This program differs from amnesty because amnesty automatically pardoned millions of aliens who illegally entered or remained in the U.S.


In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which allowed certain aliens who had lived in the U.S. for a certain period of time to become lawful permanent residents. The main amnesty provision of the law, section 245A, allowed the millions of illegal aliens to obtain legal status. The section designated a one-year application period from May 5, 1987 to May 4, 1988. In order to qualify, applicants had to establish that they had illegally resided in the U.S. since January 1, 1982 and had maintained “continuous physical presence” since November 6, 1986. Those aliens granted amnesty were pardoned from their immigration violations.


The goal of the proposed earned legalization program is to move away from this concept of amnesty. If a bill on earned legalization is passed, undocumented workers must earn their legal status instead of receiving automatic legal status.


Who supports earned legalization?


Several policymakers have voiced their support for the program and have proposed ideas for undocumented workers to earn their legal status.


On September 3, 2003, Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) issued a press release stating that as President, he would ensure that undocumented immigrants who lived in the U.S. for five years, paid taxes, and followed the law would earn the right to become residents with a new, one-time earned legalization option.


At the Democratic presidential candidate debate on October 9, Senator Lieberman, along with Senator John F. Kerry (D-MA) declared that earned legalization is the solution to the problem of America’s estimated 8.5 million undocumented immigrants. Senator Kerry has issued a statement that undocumented workers who have been in the United States for a significant amount of time, who have held a job and who can pass a background check should be eligible to earn full citizenship


Representative Dick Gephardt (D-MO) re-introduced his bill, known as “The Earned Legalization and Family Unification Act of 2002,” on October 8, 2003. Under this act, taxpaying undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for at least five years, who have a work history of two years, and who can pass a criminal background check can obtain legal status in the U.S. The bill would also unite families by reforming the visa system to eliminate backlogs to family unification.


This summer, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) introduced similar legislation. The “Land Border Security and Immigration Improvement Act” was designed to ensure that there is “no longer an underground class of undocumented immigrants.” An earned legalization program will allow undocumented workers to “emerge from the shadows.”


Governor-elect of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has also voiced support for an “earned adjustment” process, similar to the legislation introduced by Senator McCain.


All proponents for an “earned legalization” program agree that the program will benefit the economy as well as strengthen homeland security by allowing immigration enforcement officials to focus on those undocumented immigrants who pose security threats.


When will an earned legalization bill be passed?


While there is much support for an earned legalization program, an actual law will probably not be passed for some time. Post-September 11 security concerns have overridden earned legalization proposals in the past and policy experts, such as Josh Bernstein, director of federal policy at the National Immigration Law Center, believe that current proposals are still “works in progress...and are a bit of a long shot for next year.” However, Bernstein is optimistic that “eventually something will pass.” A more limited program for farm workers has been introduced and is seen to have a better chance of passage in the near term.


Representative Gephardt's bill, H.R. 3271, was introduced on October 8 and was referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary. The bill has 15 co-sponsors in the House. Senator McCain's bill, S. 1461, was introduced on July 25 and was referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and it is cosponsored by Senator Lindsey Graham. A similar bill, HR 2899, was introduced in the House by Congressmen Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake.


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