Our View: Congress needs to enact immigration reforms now

A year ago at this time, Jose Paredes, 18, was awaiting word on a life-changing application.

It wasn’t a college application, but his application for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program announced by the Obama administration in June 2012 as a way to protect from deportation certain young people who had been brought to the U.S. illegally as children and had lived here for at least five continuous years. Paredes, a 2012 graduate of Oakdale High School, was 10 when his parents brought him from Mexico.

Paredes got good news on his application last winter. He’s continued his education at California State University, Stanislaus, where he’s now majoring in business, and with his new status, he was eligible for a driver’s license and a work permit. That permit means that when he finishes college, he can find a job in his field.

Paredes is one of thousands of reasons why Congress should get something done this year on immigration reform. Otherwise, after the two-year protection expires, his status becomes uncertain. So will the status of hundreds of other young people who came here as children, some as infants. They bear no responsibility for their illegal immigration status.

A cadre of volunteers organized as the Stanislaus County Committee for Dream Act Deferred help Paredes and about 600 other young people navigate the paperwork for the Deferred Action program. No one knows for sure how many earned the safe status, but based on national statistics, it probably was well over 90 percent of those who applied.

Modesto attorney Solange Altman, a specialist in immigration law, help spearhead the volunteer effort to help local young people. She says many people don’t understand the immigration process, which is why they suggest that people just immigrate legally. “What most Americans don’t understand is there no line for most of these immigrants to get into,” she said in a speech this past summer.

The legal routes to entry are limited, Altman says, to four broad segments: family ties, employment visas, political asylum and the diversity lottery. There are only 5,000 employment visas available for low-skilled jobs such as farmwork, and in the family ties category, there are only 480,000 visas available per year for immigrants from all over the world, with a limit of 7 percent per country. “In 2012, there were 1,316,118 family members from Mexico who applied for visas. Since only 47,250 received visas last year, what happened to the 1,268,868 who weren’t able to get visas?” They get stuck in what Altman refers to as immigration purgatory.

We’ve been advocating comprehensive immigration reform for many years. We’re pleased to see Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, come out early in favor of an immigration package proposed by House Democrats. It was a bold move that has already angered some of his constituents here in the 10th Congressional District. But it was also a strategic political move that assuages some of the heat Denham got for his vote against ending the federal government shutdown.

But over the long haul, Denham has been consistently supportive of immigration reform and earlier he introduced a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to gain legal status by serving in the military for four years. He gets what many don’t – that immigration laws and policies need to be changed to provide certainty not just to people like Jose Paredes but also to employers.

For immigration reform to get done before the December holiday, Congress and the White House will have to turn their focus away, at least temporarily, from the obsession with the Affordable Care Act and its initial rollout problems. Can they do it? Of course. Will they? We can only hope so.