As the full U.S. Senate continued to debate the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, response from Santa Barbara was tentative as people learned about provisions of the proposed law. The bill first came to the floor on Monday, May 21, hailed by the Democratic and Republican leadership as a compromise that President Bush has promised to sign. Generally speaking, SB 1348 would reinforce the border with more patrol agents and 350 miles of fencing, legitimize the estimated 12 million undocumented workers who are already here, and create a new point-based merit system for future immigrants.
The bill was blasted from the right by Representative Elton Gallegly (R-Ventura and Santa Barbara) who described the 380-page bill as “amnesty, pure and simple.” The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act was also “sold on the promise of worksite and border enforcement” that did not materialize, he said. From the left, Ana Rizo, executive director of Santa Barbara’s PUEBLO social justice group, picked out provisions that she said would create obstacles for many of Santa Barbara’s undocumented workers, including a $5,000 penalty that must be paid before they could be granted temporary work visas. Rizo also found problems with a new guest-worker program that in the future would block the path to citizenship for migrants performing low-paid work, saying that people who work here should be included in the community.
Parts of the federal bill are already well understood in Santa Barbara County and throughout California. One is the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), which would allow college graduates who grew up here since childhood to apply for citizenship. Susan Snyder, a Santa Barbara High School guidance counselor, said it would facilitate her job to know that college graduates could get jobs without lying about their status.
Another component of the proposed Senate bill is AgJOBS, which would offer visas to virtually all of the area’s farmworkers. Included in the reform bill largely due to its championing by Democratic U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein-who said that California’s $32-billion agricultural industry depends “almost exclusively” on Mexican and Central American workers who currently lack proper documentation-AgJOBS
would grant legitimacy to an estimated 1.5 million farmworkers over the next five years, after they pay a $500 penalty for coming here illegally. They could then go back and forth across the border freely with their spouses and children. After the nation’s existing backlog of applications for permanent legal status is cleared, in an estimated eight years, farmworkers would be first in line among the undocumented to receive their green cards for permanent residency and potential citizenship. For the future, AgJOBS would streamline the process for farmers to legally hire seasonal workers, and would require Homeland Security to remove those workers who abandon their jobs.
Provisions applying to people filling jobs in fields other than agriculture, however, are more complex. Those who were already in the U.S. before January 1, 2007 would be granted temporary visas in much the same way as agricultural workers, although they would have to pay $5,000 in penalties to get their temporary visa, called a “Z-Card.” They too would be free to apply for permanent residency once the current backlog of legal applicants is cleared, but the head of household must return to his or her country of origin, so as to be fair to legal applicants required to do the same. Critics have derided this as an unnecessary bureaucratic burden all around. After applying, would-be immigrants would have to compete in the new merit-based system, which under the Senate bill would award more points to educated workers eligible for higher-paying jobs, especially in science and engineering.
Few people were willing to hazard an estimate of how many illegal immigrants live and work in Santa Barbara. Just over 20 percent of Santa Barbara County residents are foreign-born, according to the 2000 census, which counted about 84,000 total in the county. Bill Watkins, author of the annual UCSB Economic Forecast, said that was probably low, and that his estimate, expressed “in technical terms, is a whole bunch.”
For the future, the bill would allow 400,000 guest workers annually, who could each spend a cumulative total of six years in the U.S., but they would have to leave every two years to spend at least a year in their home country. A yet-to-be-determined percentage of guest workers, perhaps up to 20 percent, would be allowed to apply for green cards, based on the merit system.
Debate on the bill will continue in the Senate all this week and then, after a weeklong Memorial Day recess, will resume on June 4.