Poles Hopeful with Obama’s Immigration Reform Draft
Krzysztof came to the United States nine years ago. Like many immigrants from Poland, he first arrived on a tourist visa but stayed longer that the visa allowed. Living in New Jersey without a valid American driver’s license, he relies on his friends to give him a ride when he goes shopping or needs to run errands. Despite this and other inconveniences that come with being undocumented, he prefers the U.S. to Poland because, as he says, “life is easier here.”
Krzysztof is closely following all news related to the progress in potential immigration reform. “Getting legal status will definitely make my life easier. I will be able to get a driver’s license, open a bank account or obtain a regular credit card, not one I have to put down a deposit for,” he says.
Krzysztof took the leaked news on the immigration bill being prepared by the White House with cautious enthusiasm. Under the White House bill, eligible undocumented immigrants would be able to obtain a special ["Lawful Prospective Immigrant" visa] for eight years and then apply for a green card. “Naturally it would be better if the wait was shorter. But let’s start with what the visa guarantees, which is not yet known. Can you leave the country and come back with it?” asks Krzysztof, who loves to travel. He has visited 35 states so far, but dreams of going to Canada or even farther.
Krzysztof’s friend Zenon, who has resided in the U.S. illegally for the past 11 years, would also love a chance to leave the country with a possibility of coming back. “Two years ago, when my father died, I had to chose between a one-way ticket or staying here,” he says.
“You can get by without papers. There are ways of getting a car registered in your name. After some time, you stop turning around to check for a police car, but if you are planning to stay here for longer, have a family, get insurance and fly to see your family in Poland, then you could use legal status,” says Zenon, who drives on a Polish and international driver’s license. In his opinion, the immigration reform draft, which recently leaked from the White House is good news. “It is major progress. Reform, in any shape, will be welcomed,” he adds.
Many immigrants say they wouldn’t mind waiting eight years for the green card. Stanislaw from Staten Island is happy that immigration reform has become a topic of discussion in the first place. “Any chance to stay legally and allowing one a normal life is good. It is far better to wait a dozen years for a green card, but be able to live your life free from fear, instead of living in hiding with the fear of waking up one day with a deportation order on your nightstand,” Stanislaw says.
“What is remarkable is that both parties have joined the dialogue and started cooperating [on reform]. Hopefully, they will reach a consensus at last, and I hope it happens soon,” says Anna, a Brooklyn resident who has lived in the U.S. illegally for over a decade. “The 10 years have passed really quickly, so eight more will fly too, especially given that I will live with the prospect of getting a green card. I could travel around the U.S. without worrying about being caught and deported. Maybe I could even fly to Poland to see my family. Maybe I would even go away for vacation,” dreams Anna.
Not every immigrant has the patience to wait a couple of years for a green card, though. “I have been thinking of going back to Poland for good, so I don’t feel like waiting another eight years for amnesty. Neither do I feel like paying extra money for fees, penalties and lawyers. I have been deceived by one already. I will be going back in two or three years. In the meantime, I think I can manage without papers, just like I have, so far,” says Tadeusz of Brooklyn, who has lived without papers for over a dozen years.
Krzysztof and Zenon realize obtaining legal status will come with some fees and legal costs, and they are ready to incur them. “You will most likely have to pay some $5,000. Let’s say, $1,000 for overstaying your visa, they say some $500 for unpaid taxes, three to five years back,” says Krzysztof, listing the costs.
“Naturally, $5,000 is quite a sum, but it is not that much either. People pay more to cross the border,” remarks Zenon, who says he will pay the money to legalize his status even though he is planning to return to Poland in a couple of years. “If it takes time, I will stay a couple of years longer. It is better to have the door open if you want to come back here one day,” he adds.
Greenpoint immigration lawyer, Marcin Muszynski, has approached the White House immigration bill leak with skepticism.
“This is part of the political theater,” he says. “I think it was President Obama’s way of signaling which way he wanted immigration reform to go. Whether it will be a visa, or an opportunity to line up for papers, like it was in the case of section 245, it does not matter. The most important thing is the criteria one will have to meet in order to qualify to stay in the U.S., obtain a work permit and have a path open to obtaining a green card,” the lawyer says.
Muszynski predicts that the eight-year period before the green card, as mentioned in the White House reform draft, is meant to be time not only for background checks of the immigrant but also to allow legal immigrants to obtain green cards first. “It would be a great injustice if the undocumented immigrants could obtain green cards before those who submitted their papers before their legal status expired, like family members of American citizens or highly qualified workers,” Muszynski points out.
The lawyer also adds that the leaked proposal is missing a solution to preventing an influx of undocumented immigrants to the U.S.
“The draft of the bill does not mention what happens to those who come here illegally or lose their legal status after amnesty or immigration reform is introduced. Frankly, I am a bit disappointed with what Obama is offering,” Muszynski says.