Immigration talk on Capitol Hill

Last week, while visiting family on the East Coast, I spent a day in Washington, D.C. I hoped to interview several congressmen about their views on mixed immigration status couples but my timing was really bad: I arrived the day after the debt ceiling vote and most lawmakers were on their way home to “brag” about their votes. But I ended up meeting with staffers in two congressional offices and I think our background conversations were even more valuable than an interview with the elected officials would have been.

Though mixed status couples have not gotten very much press compared to other groups seeking immigration relief (like DREAM Act students or same-sex couples), there are some very good ideas floating around Capitol Hill, backed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The CHC and individual lawmakers have requested that the Obama Administration:

  • Switch to processing waivers to the 3- and 10-year bars (essentially pardons for SOME undocumented immigrants who would otherwise have a family visa available) inside the United States, rather than forcing tens of thousands of relatives of Americans to travel abroad while waiting for their applications to be processed.
  • Expand the definition of “extreme hardship”—the standard for getting the above-mentioned waiver—so it includes separation from a spouse, for example, or from U.S. citizen children. These seem obvious, but currently Americans have to prove that they will suffer medical or serious financial hardship for their immigrant partners to win these cases.

I also heard that the Obama administration is very sensitive to media coverage—both in English and Spanish language press—on immigration reform. Perhaps this is obvious or old news, but I was surprised by some of the examples of press determining policy that staffers offered. I have to confirm this notion further.

I also realized that Obama is about two years behind the curve in thinking on Comprehensive Immigration Reform, a tactic that many in the pro-immigrant movement abandoned in favor of individually tweaking policies that help mixed status families, students, youth, and same-sex couples. Maybe a year ago, there were still a few pro-immigrant congressman who were saying they wanted comprehensive reform or nothing. The DREAM Act activists changed their tune by successfully demanding a vote and now Obama (and other presidential candidates who do not want to take a stand) is the only one talking about comprehensive or nothing. At least many Republicans talk about specific policies like border control or mass deportations—as flawed as their logic is—rather than the vagaries or Russian Roulette of comprehensive reform.

Another view from Capitol Hill is that LGBT advocates have made better headway in working with the immigration agencies than the undocumented in part because La Migra has a built in bias against people in the country illegally, but not necessarily against same-sex couples. Of course, those groups do overlap frequently and many same-sex couples are going to need the same relief that mixed-status couples are seeking, be it in-country processing, an expanded hardship definition or a legalization program.

Walking across Capitol Hill, from the Senate office buildings to the House side, you have to pass right in back of the U.S. Capitol. I’m always struck by how small it looks from the back: the nation’s capitol is just another building really (as is the Supreme Court, which sits just off the back lawn). I’m struck by how members of Congress appear so normal looking away from the TV cameras, as they walk to lunch or to their cars, sweating just like everyone else. While the business of governing exudes a mystical, larger-than-life persona on the evening news and in the papers, it’s just regular folks there in Washington, trying to keep themselves sane and popular. It’s worth a stroll around the congressional parking lot every few years to remember that.

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