Union Leader: Making Immigrants Go Home a "Non-Starter"

PHOTO: Protesters put on signs for immigrant rights, in downtown Chicago, Friday, March 22, 2013.Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo
Protesters put on signs for immigrant rights, in downtown Chicago, Friday, March 22, 2013.

A prominent union leader is balking at an immigration reform plan reportedly being crafted in the House, saying it would make a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants too difficult to accomplish.

According to a report in The New York Times, a bipartisan group in the House is writing a bill that would contain three paths to legalization. One of those paths, offered to certain immigrants who have family or employment ties that qualify them for legal status, would reportedly require those immigrants to return to the their home countries before applying for legalization.

Under current law, undocumented immigrants who wish to apply for legal entry into the U.S. must go back to their country of origin, or "touch back," and remain there for three to 10 years before applying. But those re-entry bars would be "relaxed or waived" under the House plan, according to the Times.

Those provisions could satisfy Republican lawmakers in the House -- who might otherwise balk at a path to citizenship over rule of law concerns -- while still offering unauthorized immigrants a path to legalization.

"Clearly there's an understanding that the only way to fix our broken immigration system is with comprehensive reform, including a road map for immigrants to earn the chance to become taxpaying American citizens," said an aide who is familiar with negotiations in the House, who declined to be named because official language has not been released. "Congress, the president and the American people agree."

Another source stressed that the House group has not yet come to a final agreement on an immigration plan and that details could change. The group is expected to put forth a bill this month.

But immigration reform advocates and union leaders on Wednesday rejected the "touchback" provision in the House plan.

"That portion of the bill would be a non-starter," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters on a conference call. "It wouldn't fly, it's a bad policy...it would cause more families to be divided."

Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy and public affairs for the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, said that it would be unrealistic to require unauthorized immigrants to return to their home countries.

"It's something that we would try to change," he said. "I understand the rationale of it -- that the House would want folks to play by the rules. .. but it's not practical in a lot of ways."

Appleby questioned the touchback from a strategic point of view. "If the goal here is to get people regularized, we shouldn't put up barriers to making that happen," he said. "If we give people a half loaf, this issue is going to fester into the future."

According to the Times report, the House plan would not require all those seeking legal status to "touch back" in the home countries. Young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors, otherwise known as DREAMers, and agricultural workers would receive an "expedited path to legal status." Other undocumented immigrants would be allowed to seek "provisional legal status," and then could apply for citizenship within 15 years if they meet certain requirements, similar to the Senate's plan.

But the inclusion of a "touchback" for reopened old wounds for some. Immigration bills considered by Congress in 2007 would have required undocumented immigrants to return home before seeking legal status, which irked reform supporters on the left.

"In 2007, that very reason was why so many progressives dropped off the bill," Trumka said.