Like so many immigrants caught in the hectic dance of life in America, our immigration policy takes Rigo Rivera one step forward and two steps back.
The 23-year-old has spent the majority of his life in the United States, and finally has permission to work in Georgia for the next two years. But what he wants to do is get an education and become a lawyer, a goal that feels out of reach because the state’s Board of Regents classifies him as an international student. That means he has to pay $1,200 per class, $1,000 more than in-state residents pay.
So, for now, he works at his parents' cleaning business or helps out as part of set-up crew for events around the Atlanta area to save money. He emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 10 in 1999 with his parents, who remain undocumented.
“It’s really difficult to go to school in the state of Georgia,” Rivera said. “They’ve made it hard for immigrant students like me who have a work permit.”
With state driver's license and work permit, he can legally earn money. But Rivera and millions like him long for the sort of comprehensive federal immigration reform that is in Senate bill 744. The bill would override his status in Georgia so he would pay the same cost for school as in-state residents.
That means he could actually afford school and plan for a successful future in the country he's lived in for most of his life.
The Immigration Modernization Act calls for a citizenship path for illegal immigrants already in the U.S., and basic border security and visa tracking improvements. Illegal immigrants would have a chance at citizenship after gaining legal immigrants get a permanent resident status. There would be reforms focusing on visa backlogs as well and a fast track for immigrants with specialized degrees in science, technology, engineering or math.
Two other points in the bill would make it easier for employers to verify the status of workers and better work visa options for low skilled workers.
The bill has been stalled by the Republican leadership in the House, who say that they will not bring it up for full discussion, opting instead for smaller groups to address issues piecemeal.
Some advocates are not so sure the Senate bill is encompassing enough, but it’s better than nothing.
“We have a government that couldn’t agree on lunch. You get what you can politically and build on it,” said Stacey Hopkins, an organizer for MoveOn.Org’s Atlanta Council who acknowledges the legislation's imperfections.
Abdi Abdi, the director of the Somali Bantu Association of Tucson, agrees. Comprehensive immigration policy is the only way to cover all facets of life for those trying to make it in the United States legally or illegally.
His organization deals mostly in refugee and asylum seekers fleeing African countries such as Somalia, Bhutan, Burundi and Congo, and has helped 5,000 people start new lives in Arizona over the past six years.
The circumstances may be different than illegal immigrants or routine emigration, but the wait time for entrance into the U.S. sometimes takes up to three years, he said.
Abdi himself spent 12 years in a Kenyan refugee camp before emigrating to the U.S. and then became a citizen six years later.
“If we’re talking about comprehensive reform, it should cover all the angles,” Abdi said. “Just to get your application in is difficult. It’s a long due process.”
Once inside the U.S., the road to citizenship could take between six and eight years more, compared to countries like Australia, Norway and Trinidad which have shorter timelines to be become citizens.
During that transition from refugee or asylum seeker to citizen, the people he represents do their best to assimilate by learning English and working to improve their lives and that of family members.
Hopkins sees the myriad of immigrant faces in her own Atlanta neighborhood and their contribution to the economy and society. She simplifies the issue of comprehensive immigration reform as one of basic dignity.
“It’s a human rights issue,” Hopkins said. “How can someone become an illegal human being.”