Saturday, March 27, 2010

Practical Immigration Solutions

By William Fisher

As the administration of President Barack Obama and Congressional lawmakers prepare to tackle comprehensive immigration reform, a leading immigration advocate is charging that Government inaction has resulted in “a range of enforcement-only initiatives that have cost the country billions of dollars, while doing little to impede the flow of unauthorized immigrants.”

According to a new report by the Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Council, “the current immigration system’s structural failures, and the inadequate or misguided responses to these failures, have led to the largest unauthorized population” in American history.

“Nearly everyone agrees that our immigration system is badly broken and in urgent need of reform. Under the existing system people are dying at the border, immigrants are living and working in abject conditions, families trying to reunite legally are separated for many years, employers are unable to hire the workers that they need, U.S. workers suffer from the unlevel playing field shared with exploited immigrant workers, and law-abiding U.S. employers are in unfair competition with unscrupulous employers who increase profits by hiring cheap and vulnerable labor,” the report says, adding, “Meanwhile, the United States continues to spend billions of dollars on enforcing these broken laws.”

“Focusing on the Solutions: The Key Principles of Comprehensive Immigration Reform” summarizes the key elements that need to be included in a successful legislative package.

Commenting on recent proposals made by Congressional lawmakers, IPC Director Mary Giovagnoli told IPS that statements from Senators Charles Schumer of New York and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina “mark renewed commitment to providing immigration reform that will bolster the economy and provide for America's future.”

She added, "We encourage the President and Senators Schumer and Graham to go beyond words and produce legislation that will finally fix our broken immigration system once and for all." An outline of the lawmakers’ ideas appeared in The Washington Post.
The IPC report identifies ten areas it says lawmakers need to concentrate on.

First, insufficient numbers of visas are made available to bring in either high-skilled or less-skilled workers at the levels needed to meet the changing needs of the U.S. economy and labor market.

Second, family members who are eligible for visas must wait up to 20 years to be reunited with family living in the United States.

Third, wage and workplace violations by unscrupulous employers who exploit immigrant workers are undercutting honest businesses and harming all workers.

Fourth, inadequate government infrastructure is delaying the integration of immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens.

Fifth, Legalization. “Most Americans understand that we cannot deport 10-1 million people or hope that they will choose to ‘self-deport.’ It is clear that current enforcement-only responses have not been effective and are not a realistic solution to the current crisis. The underlying flaws of the legal immigration system must be addressed in order to create a fair, humane, and practical immigration system for the 21st century -- a system that is responsive to the needs of our economy and encourages legal behavior.”

“Requiring the 10-11 million unauthorized immigrants residing in the U.S. to register with the government and meet eligibility criteria in order to gain legal status is a key element of comprehensive immigration reform,” the report says.

Sixth, the report says it’s likely that Congress “will transform the way employers verify the work authorization of their workers. Since this will affect immigrants and citizens alike, and because an error in the system can cost a worker his job and paycheck, it is important to make the system effective.”

Seventh, comprehensive reform of our broken immigration system will “necessarily transform the role of immigration enforcement.” Legalization of unauthorized immigrants already in the United States “will result in a significantly smaller unauthorized population, and the creation of flexible legal channels for those immigrants we need will ensure that future flows of illegal immigration are minimal.” But the report says there will continue to be a need to enforce the nation’s immigration laws.

Eighth, the report notes that family-oriented immigration has always been a pillar of the U.S. immigration system. “However, many close family members of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are currently waiting years, if not decades, to reunite with their loved ones.”

Ninth, the report says, comprehensive immigration reform must address the future needs of the U.S. economy and create a well-functioning and flexible system of permanent and temporary visas for both high-skilled and low-skilled workers. Policymakers must recognize that if we create a legal immigration system that functions well, there will be less pressure on immigrants come to the U.S. illegally and for employers to hire unauthorized workers.”

Tenth, the report says immigrant integration will benefit everyone because “it enables immigrants to realize their full potential, contribute more to the U.S. economy, and develop deeper community ties.” It notes that the U.S. “has no national strategy for facilitating integration and insufficient infrastructure to facilitate a smooth transition from immigrant to citizen.”

Right Wing Blocks Legal Aid

By William Fisher

For the past 14 years, the non-profit company set up by Congress to provide legal services for the poor, has been forced to short-change the needy because of severe Government restrictions on how it can use its funding.

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) has been attempting to operate with large chunks of its potential activity foreclosed. It has been unable to help with both programs that receive government funds and even those that use non-federal funds raised by legal services programs.

Since their passage, these restrictions have been plagued by repeated First Amendment questions and have sparked calls for change, says watchdog group OMB Watch. (OMB stands for the Government’s powerful Office of Management and Budget.)

Lee Mason, Director of Nonprofit Speech Rights at the Washington-based advocacy group told IPS, “The restrictions on the use of non-federal funds of the Legal Services Corporation amount to an all out attack on the constitutionally guaranteed First Amendment Rights of millions of Citizens of America."

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is a private, non-profit corporation established by the United States Congress to seek to ensure equal access to justice under the law for all Americans by providing civil legal assistance to those who otherwise would be unable to afford it. The LSC was created in 1974 with bipartisan congressional sponsorship and the support of the Nixon administration, and is funded through the congressional appropriations process.

OMB Watch says the origin of the funding restrictions was a concerted effort by right-wing interests to deny low-income people access to the courts by destroying LSC. In “Mandate for Leadership,” the conservative agenda published on the eve of President Ronald Reagan’s first term in 1981, the conservative Heritage Foundation called for LSC’s wholesale destruction. Barring its complete demise, Heritage argued for steep budget cuts and the imposition of broad restrictions through LSC appropriations riders.”

According to state bar associations, court-established Access to Justice Commissions, and state legal services planning bodies, the funding restrictions have had disastrous consequences for poor people who need legal services.

These organizations have found that the restrictions placed on organizations receiving federal funding present "major barriers to justice for low-income persons . . ." (Arkansas); prevent representation "in cases ranging from an illegal tenant lockout to consumer fraud, to civil rights enforcement." (New Hampshire); have a "negative impact," "in actual practice (causing great inefficiencies in the way applicants for service must be processed and referred) and principle (denial of essential and fundamental legal assistance to some who need it)." (New Jersey); are "major obstacles . . . for achieving ‘equal access' for disfavored clients and politically unpopular cases." (Texas); and limit programs' "use of the most appropriate legal strategies to effectively represent low income clients with high priority legal needs."(Washington).

The LSC Act specifically prohibits organizations receiving LSC funding from using LSC or private funds to engage in: political activities; most criminal cases; "challenging criminal convictions against officers of the court or law enforcement officers; organizing activities, including training for – or encouraging of – political or labor activities"; litigation to receive "non-therapeutic abortions" or "compel the provision of abortion services over religious or moral objections"; and "proceedings involving desegregation of public schools, military service or assisted suicide."

Additional funding restrictions have been added over the years. In 1996, Congress expanded the LSC restrictions to apply to funds from all sources, including federal, state, local, and private funds, with the exception of tribal funds. It also prohibited additional activities, including: class actions; all abortion-related litigation; representing prisoners; representing people who are being evicted from public housing for allegedly distributing illegal drugs; redistricting activities; lobbying governmental bodies, with limited exceptions; and representing non-U.S. citizens, with limited exceptions.

Current LSC rules also require legal aid programs that wish to lobby, spend
private dollars on class action lawsuits, comment on proposed regulations, or
represent certain types of clients, such as prisoners or certain immigrants, to
set up physically separate offices with separate staff.

Legislative efforts to overturn the LSC funding restrictions have increased in
the past year. In March 2009, Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, introduced the Civil Access to Justice Act of 2009 that would end the restrictions on the use of non-federal funds by LSC grantees, except those related to abortion litigation and a few other activities. "Lifting these restrictions allows individual states, cities and donors the ability to determine themselves how best to spend non-federal funds to ensure access to the courts," said Harkin.

Public sentiment also appears to be on the side of providing legal access to
those in need. OMB Watch charges that, “Since the Reagan administration, conservatives have sounded a drumbeat of opposition directed at the LSC. The Reagan budgets annually proposed elimination of legal services, only to have those services protected by Congress. Over the years, LSC funding has limped along. However, with the recent economic downturn, there has been a noticeable uptick in support for legal services. According to the Associated Press, two-thirds of those polled in 2009 on behalf of the American Bar Association said they favor federal funding for people who need legal assistance. Notably, Congress increased funding for the LSC in the last appropriations cycle.”

For 2007, LSC had a budget of some $350 million. This year it has asked Congress to provide $516.5 million, with more than 95 percent of the budget request going to fund 136 nonprofit legal aid programs across the nation that provide civil legal assistance to the nation's poor.