How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Citizenship vs. legal status: Some immigrants willing to take less, but advocates warn against it

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As this year's congressional legislative calendar draws to an end, immigration reform remains in limbo. President Obama hinted recently that he's willing to consider a piecemeal approach to overhauling the nation's immigration laws, something many Republicans have favored all along.

If so, it could entail compromises. Many Republicans, especially in the House, are strongly opposed a path to U.S. citizenship for people in the country illegally, a cornerstone of the sweeping plan approved in June by the Senate.

Some GOP lawmakers have proposed limiting citizenship to smaller groups, like young people who arrived as minors. Others have talked about drawing the line at legal status, with no clear route to naturalization. On the left, some immigrant advocates have called for a temporary fix, hoping the White House will at least provide unauthorized immigrants with short-term work permits and protection from deportation.

Some people are more willing to bend on the citizenship question than others - and this includes those who stand to be affected most.

One afternoon this week in Los Angeles, construction worker Andres Lopez mulled over the possibilities. He said he's been in the United States for ten years, living and working under the radar. For nearly a year he's heard about the possibility of legal status and eventual U.S. citizenship for people like him, wondering if such a thing might happen.

If it does, he said, great - but for now, just peace of mind would do.

"If they don't give us citizenship, then at least residency or a work permit," said Lopez, 55. "That would be something to start with, so that one can be here without being afraid of being here without papers. That is what Hispanics worry about, going around with the fear that if something goes wrong at work, immigration will come and send you back to your country."

A permit that allowed travel outside the U.S. would also be a benefit, said Cesar Leon, who worked in a garment factory until he began losing his eyesight several years ago. He left his family in Guatemala 25 years ago to work and send money to them. He said that by the time he obtained legal status and was able to travel home, his wife had given up on their marriage.

"I lost my home because of the time and the distance," said Leon, 58. "It would be good to have a permit, but also something that allows people to go home and visit their families. I fixed my papers, but it took 15 years. In that time, I lost my family. My wife got tired of waiting."

But lowering the citizenship bar is a touchy subject for immigrant advocates, who understand the desperation of immigrants who will settle for less.

"I see on a day-to-day basis the dire need to have some legal status, to get out of the shadows, work legally in the U.S., get a driver's license and travel outside of the U.S.," said Alma Rosa Nieto, a Los Angeles immigration attorney. "This group would be grateful to have this privilege, although it's short term and temporary."

Something is better than nothing, Nieto said, but a plan that doesn't include citizenship citizenship - temporary or long-term - could undermine broader immigration reform efforts if lawmakers shelve the issue without getting at root problems, like the backlogged visa system.

Advocates also fear creating a permanent underclass in which people are able to work legally in the U.S., but can't vote or otherwise participate fully in society.

Angelica Salas of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Reform of Los Angeles said she and others who have spent years lobbying for an immigration overhaul are willing to go along with Obama on a piecemeal approach, provided key provisions in the Senate plan stay - and that citizenship is one of these.

"If it were just a temporary fix, the president can give us that," Salas said. 'He gave it to us through deferred action. But we want a permanent solution. You are only fully protected from deportation once you become a citizen, because even legal permanent residents are being deported. For us, that would be the requirement for something to move forward."

The program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, allows young people who arrived in the U.S. before age 16 to apply for a two-year reprieve from deportation and a work permit. It kicked off in August 2012. Since then, close to half a million young immigrants have been approved.

Deferred action must be renewed after two years, but the program's relative success has led some immigrant advocates to push a so-called "Plan B" if a legislative plan fails. Legal experts say that President Obama could technically expand deferred action-style protection to other limited groups of immigrants, or raise the age cap to make more people eligible. So far, Obama has said he's not interested in this approach.

Nieto says another limited alternative could be to revive a program known as 245(i), which in the past has allowed some immigrants to legalize through family or an employer if they pay a steep fine. The last cutoff date for petitions filed was in 2001; at the time the fee was $1,000.

"If piecemeal legislation is an option the government might take, I strongly suggest they revisit 245i benefits," Nieto said. "This benefited both immigrants and the U.S. government, since hefty fees were collected from each applicant."

The most recent limited fix for unauthorized immigrants to come out of the White House allows immediate family members of U.S. military to be "paroled in place," allowing those who are here illegally to seek legal status without having to leave the country.

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