Commentary: An easy-to-fix immigration reform

(Damian Dovarganes | AP photo) A young student joins members of Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, CHIRLA, on a vehicle caravan rally to support the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program DACA, around MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, Thursday, June 18, 2020.

In light of the recent Supreme Court ruling about DACA, many eyes are now fixed again on our nation’s deeply flawed immigration system.

Did you know there is one small change that Congress could make right now that would make it possible for millions of undocumented immigrants to legally fix their status? This would be eliminating the three- and 10-year bars to reentry put in place by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996.

It’s beyond time to acknowledge that these bars just don’t work and need to be eliminated. This should be an easy bipartisan fix. Former Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who worked for 15 years as an immigration attorney, said of the bars: “If we get rid of what we call ‘the bars’ ... we could fix the problem for about 25 percent of the people that are here illegally. And we would do it through the proper legal system.”

To illustrate how these bars work and why they are so problematic, let us present you with a real-life case. Names have been changed.

Isabel came to the United States with her parents and younger sisters in 1993 when she was 14 years old. Once here, weak with relief for having escaped the dangerous, gang-ridden area of Mexico where they had lived and determined to give their daughters a better life, her parents sought the services of a “notario” in California to whom they paid a great deal of money to become “legal”— or so they thought.

It was a scam and, in 1995, the family was placed in deportation proceedings and were eventually ordered deported. At that point, fearful for the fate of their daughters should they be forced to return to Mexico, the family moved into the shadows and remained in the U.S.

Years later, the family was tracked down by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The parents were deported back to Mexico, but the three sisters, all of whom had grown up in the U.S. and were now married and had U.S. citizen children, were given orders of supervision and were permitted to stay at the discretion of ICE. They dutifully checked in with ICE as required and were told that they were no longer on ICE’s radar for deportation. Until 2017.

When Isabel showed up for her routine check-in with ICE in March of 2017, she was told that “priorities had changed” and that she would need to immediately purchase a ticket back to Mexico. Since she had a U.S. citizen stepson who would be turning 21 in a few months, she applied for and was granted a stay of removal so that he could file an immigrant petition for her once he was of age, the approval of which was a prerequisite for Isabel to legalize her status.

The immigrant petition filed by her stepson was approved, but Isabel still cannot move forward and legalize her status. Even though she entered the United States as a child, has lived in the United States for the last 27 years, the last 10 with the express permission of ICE, pays taxes, has a U.S. citizen daughter and stepchildren and has no criminal record — not even a speeding ticket — she cannot use the immigrant petition approved for her by the government because she must first leave the country in order to apply for her green card (this is required), and leaving the country would automatically trigger a bar which would prevent her from returning for 10 years.

This is the utterly nonsensical and cruel dilemma that was created by the three- and 10-year bar provisions of the IIRIRA.

These bars which were meant as a deterrent have instead become a motivation for people to stay in the country illegally. Paul Virtue, former general counsel of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, asserts that, “Far from curtailing illegal immigration and deterring people from overstaying their visa as intended, [the] bars to admissibility are actually contributing to the unprecedented rise in the number of undocumented immigrants.”

In addition, these bars create insurmountable obstacles for people who are trying as hard as they can to “get in line” as they are so often told to do so that they can follow the outlined procedure to become legal residents. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that more than 1.2 million spouses of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents are blocked from becoming legal residents themselves because of these bars.

It is common knowledge that our immigration system is broken. We desperately need comprehensive immigration reform. But, in the meantime, let’s take care of the most glaring common-sense components that we can all agree on without delay, starting with eliminating the disastrous three- and 10-year bars.

Immigration reform is inherently nuanced and complicated, and policy makers must weigh many important and sometimes competing factors. But in the instance of these particular bars, they are both ineffective and morally unacceptable. They harm American families and have actually led to an increase in the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Congress, it’s long past time to do this. Change the law.

Sharlee Mullins Glenn | founder of Mormon Women for Ethical Government

Sharlee Mullins Glenn founded the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization Mormon Women for Ethical Government in 2017. She is currently an executive officer of the Everyone Belongs Project.

Marti Jones

Marti L. Jones has practiced immigration law since 1991, in both the non-profit and private sectors. She is currently of counsel with the firm of Stowell, Crayk and Bown in Salt Lake City.

James Winings

James Winings is the managing attorney in the Immigration Department with the firm of Maria Jones in Phoenix. He focuses primarily in deportation defense and family-based immigration.

Jennifer Fuentes Langi

Jennifer Fuentes Langi was born and raised in Mexico. She is lead immigration attorney with Bighorn Law in Salt Lake City.