There is real optimism that in 2013 immigration reform may become a reality. But until the United States Congress finally acts, and the President signs that bill into law, no one is sure exactly what form this new legislation will take.
While there is hope for comprehensive changes to U.S. immigration law, there is uncertainty about the details, including the all-important “path to citizenship” for undocumented or illegal immigrants already living in the U.S.
If you are one of the approximately 11 million people who may be affected by immigration reform, you are likely curious and anxious about what the future will bring for you. It may be many months before we know which proposed changes will be part of the final legislative package, but there are certain actions you can and should take immediately to give you the best chance of taking advantage of it.
Time Frame for Action on New Law
There is a sense of urgency for making progress on comprehensive immigration reform because everyone agrees that the immigration system is broken.
In late January, a bipartisan group of Senators presented an outline of elements for immigration reform that include both a path to citizenship as well as increased border security.
The next day, President Barack Obama expressed support generally for the Senators’ sketchy proposals, but warned that, if Congress does not act promptly, he will present his own legislation. On February 16, 2013, details of a legislative plan by the President were “leaked” to the press.
The Senate is expected to take some action on immigration reform in March 2013. This will include committee hearings and votes, and then a full vote by the Senate. This pattern will be repeated in the House of Representatives. Then, if the proposed laws emerging from these two houses of Congress conflict, the House and Senate must take steps to reconcile these differences.
If President Obama can support the bill that Congress sends him, he will undoubtedly sign it immediately because he has been active in championing immigration reform.
This process will take several months at a minimum – and likely longer. Then, there will be a long list of administrative procedures to create and set up so that the new law can take effect.
What You Can Do
Even if the most liberal version of proposed immigration reform is voted into law – which is unlikely because of the current composition of the U.S. Congress – the road for most undocumented people to full, or even some form of temporary or preliminary, legal status may be costly and difficult.
Until the President signs final legislation, no one will know the exact requirements for applicants. But now is the time to take some first steps that should eventually help you achieve the best legal status that the new law may offer.
There is little doubt that any new immigration law will include a requirement of proof of continuous residency in the United States for at least some period of time.
You should begin thinking about which documents and what information you may have that could, directly or indirectly, help prove that residence. Then collect and safeguard these papers. Some items may be obvious:
∙ driver’s license
∙ rent or mortgage documents; cancelled checks for payment
∙ utilities bills with your U.S. residence address
∙ school records, including transcripts, attendance evidence, and diplomas
∙ employment records
∙ church records and certificates
∙ medical records; billing, payment, and treatment
∙ bank accounts showing a U.S. residence address, along with transactions occurring in the U.S. on a regular basis
∙ credit card bills with your U.S. residence address, along with transactions occurring in the U.S. on a regular basis
∙ insurance policies
Be creative, though, in this search for proof of residency. Any item that could tend to show that you have lived in the U.S. continuously can help. This can include items like mail addressed and delivered to you at your residence, or sales receipts or warranties for large purchases like appliances.
In addition to collecting documents, prepare detailed notes about your personal history in the United States, including names of people (friends, neighbors, co-workers, professionals) who are witnesses to your continuous residency. Witness statements will likely not be sufficient proof alone, but – combined with documents prepared in the regular course of business, like work, school, or medical records – this evidence can be useful.
All of the current immigration reform proposals suggest that applicants may need to learn English as well as United States history and government. If you need help with these subjects, begin the process of acquiring this knowledge.
The current proposals also contain requirements about paying back or at least current taxes. Even if you do not have a U.S. social security number, you can and should file tax returns with an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN). This can be obtained from the Internal Revenue Service. Of course, filing taxes and showing other evidence that you have worked in the United States can also help prove your U.S. continuous residency.
You may need proof of your identity. Locate or obtain your birth certificate and your passport or national identity document.
If you have a criminal record, that could be a bar to obtaining legal status if the violations were for serious crimes. However, if the violations were minor, or you were arrested and your case was dismissed, your arrest record may be evidence of your residency in the U.S. It also may be possible to have certain convictions erased from your record.
Consider obtaining your arrest and conviction records now – and a “certificate of disposition.” Also, think about consulting a lawyer about your personal circumstances and how various immigration reform proposals – or the eventual law – may affect you.