Saira Barajas, 21, left, with her mother, Maria Galvan, 43, at the Coalition… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
Under the immigration bill proposed by a bipartisan group of senators, Maria Galvan could achieve her dream of opening a hair salon in Southern California. She has spent more than a decade doing odd jobs, barred from getting the required business license because she is in the country illegally.
"It makes me happy to know we're being heard," said Galvan, 43, who is originally from Mexico City. "If this happens, it will be such a relief."
The path to citizenship as laid out in the bill is a lengthy one. Jose Cruz, a day laborer from Guatemala looking for work outside a Los Angeles Home Depot, said he was willing to wait. But fellow day laborer Javier Gonzalez reminded his friend of the prospective timetable: "You want to wait 13 years?"
Such were the conversations in Los Angeles' immigrant communities Tuesday as details of the long-awaited Senate proposal began to circulate. Immigrant rights advocates said they were pleased that a legalization measure was on the table, but they expressed concern about the specifics, including the long waits and the requirement that border security goals be met first.
"Before, it was just conjecture, conjecture, conjecture. But now, we have something to react to," said Xiomara Corpeño, director of organizing at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "In a way, we already won."
If the final bill contains a legalization component, life could be transformed for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country without proper papers, one in four of whom lives in California. Following the last mass legalization in 1986, many immigrants were able to land better jobs and increase their earnings. They got driver's licenses and could live without the fear of being deported and separated from their families. Though some immigrants like Galvan are cautiously optimistic, others wonder whether the politicians' promises will turn to dust yet again.
For opponents of increased immigration, Social Security numbers for millions of unauthorized immigrants, along with the dramatic increase in work visas proposed by the Senate bill, would create too much competition for jobs. Conservative lawmakers will feel pressure to make the path to citizenship more difficult.
"When we have massive unemployment in the U.S., I don't think we need to be increasing immigration and bringing in people to take jobs when there are American citizens and legal immigrants who need jobs," said Ric Oberlink, a spokesman for Californians for Population Stabilization.
Father Scott Santarosa, pastor of Dolores Mission Parish in Boyle Heights, called the Senate bill "nothing short of a miracle." But he would like a shorter waiting period for green cards, and he wonders if the border security trigger could give politicians a way to put off citizenship indefinitely. Most of his parishioners are Latino immigrants. He estimates that about 10% are in the country illegally.
"For all the naysayers out there, they can put that date off all they want," Santarosa said. "If the climate changes eight or 10 years from now, that could put this thing in a flight pattern, a circle pattern where they don't move forward on it."
The border security requirements may be needed for any legalization measure to pass, some analysts say. After Latino voters played a large part in President Obama's reelection, immigration reform became a real possibility. But some conservative members of the House of Representatives will not get on board unless there is "stricter border security and a less direct path to citizenship than is in the Senate bill," said Tom Wong, an assistant professor of political science at UC San Diego.
Under the Senate proposal, immigrants who have been in the country since before Dec. 31, 2011, could apply for provisional status, which would allow them to live and work in the U.S. Those with significant criminal records, including a single felony or three or more misdemeanors, would not be eligible.
After 10 years, the immigrants could apply for green cards, but only if border security goals, which include a 90% apprehension rate, are "substantially" met, and if the current backlog of work and family visa applications is cleared. Knowledge of English and civics would be required for a green card. After three more years, green card holders could get citizenship.
Agricultural workers and young people who came to the country illegally as children would be on a faster track, getting green cards after five years. The young immigrants could get citizenship as soon as they received their green cards.
The fees, which start at $500 for provisional status, plus an application fee and payment of back taxes, could prove an obstacle for low-wage workers. Renewal would cost another $500, with the green card costing $1,000. Citizenship applications currently cost $680.