It’s a move that experts say marks a dramatic jump-start for a long-stalled process, and reflects the voice of the voters in last year’s presidential race. A group of senators and President Barack Obama both outlined plans to revamp the nation’s immigration system and create a path to citizenship for the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally. Kojo examines the key proposals and explores what they would mean for individuals and the nation.


  • Eleanor Pelta Immediate Past President, American Immigration Lawyers Association; Partner, Morgan Lewis


  • 13:06:46

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, energy drinks, boosting us or playing us. But first, on Monday a bipartisan group of eight senators presented a set of principles that will shape an immigration reform law they say they'll draft by March.

  • 13:07:18

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIOn Tuesday, President Obama delivered his own proposal for how to fix the country's immigration system but said he'll defer to Congress to draw up legislation as long as Congress does it quickly. The dual announcements create new momentum to solve a thorny national problem. Roughly 11 million immigrants live in the United States without legal documentation.

  • 13:07:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBoth plans are for them a path to citizenship after certain conditions are met. While immigration activists are excited by the prospect of progress, they're still concerned about the devil in the details. For instance, what would it mean to secure the U.S. border with Mexico? A suggested prerequisite to offering illegal immigrants a green card.

  • 13:08:02

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWith congressional hearings on the immigration framework set to begin next month, we'll look at how the legislation is likely to unfold. Joining us in studio is Eleanor Pelta, immediate past president of American Immigration Lawyers Association. She's a partner at the law firm Morgan Lewis and Bockius. She joins us in studio. Eleanor Pelta, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:23

    MS. ELEANOR PELTAThank you.

  • 13:08:25

    NNAMDIYou've said the Senate plan and the president's plan are quite similar and tackle several basic problems. The first is what to do with the undocumented immigrant population in this country. What would happen under these new plans?

  • 13:08:38

    PELTAWell, under both plans there would be a program of what I would call earned legalization. So after the border is secure and after other applicants who've been waiting in lines and we talk about that in a minute, have gotten their lawful permanent residence, applicants under this earned legalization program will be able to get lawful permanent residence.

  • 13:09:07

    PELTAThey'll first get a provisional permanent residence or provisional status. They have to pay a penalty, pay their taxes, they have to show that they are, that they haven't committed any crimes and...

  • 13:09:29

    NNAMDIProficiency in English.

  • 13:09:31

    PELTAAnd proficiency in English as well, exactly.

  • 13:09:33

    NNAMDIIs that currently a legal requirement for obtaining citizenship status?

  • 13:09:37

    PELTAIt's a legal requirement for obtaining citizenship not for obtaining lawful permanent residence.

  • 13:09:44

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation on the push to overhaul immigration or you can send us email to What's the difference between amnesty and a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who currently live in the country?

  • 13:10:03

    PELTAWell, you know, in the last few years amnesty has kind of become a naughty word.

  • 13:10:11

    NNAMDILast had it in 1986, right?

  • 13:10:13

    PELTAThat's exactly right. And really the notion of earned legalization is an idea that encompasses really having to comply with certain rules, having to jump through certain hoops and really kind of earning the status rather than applying, showing you were here a certain amount of time and getting the status immediately. I think that's the difference between the two concepts.

  • 13:10:45

    NNAMDIA second element of both plans is dealing with border security. But I've read that border security is, in fact, tighter than it's ever been. What would these measures do, particularly along the U.S. border with Mexico?

  • 13:10:58

    PELTAWell, that's true. There was just an article this morning that said that if you look at the 2007 proposal that didn't get passed, the immigration proposal, that also had a component requiring us to meet certain border security goals and we have met, since 2007, almost every one of those border security goals.

  • 13:11:21

    PELTAWe have more border patrol officials than we were supposed to have under the 2007 proposal. We have more miles of fence built, more drones, more, you know, vehicle barriers. So we have gone a long way to secure the border. There are some additional provisions in the Senate proposal for securing the border and that has to be done first before anyone who is applying under the earned legalization program can get their status.

  • 13:11:53

    NNAMDIAnd it seems to me that that's likely to be one of the major sticking points because who gets to decide when the border is secure enough? It's my understanding that the Senate proposal would call for a commission to be established and that members of those commission will be some of the better known elected officials in Border States who are, who have been outspoken on this issue. But I think it's going to be a sticking point because can you possibly satisfy everyone that the border is secure enough?

  • 13:12:24

    PELTAI think that's one of the problems that, you know, we have gone so far, we have spent so much money already on securing the border and clearly the group of eight who came up with the Senate proposal do not think that that's enough. So I think that's one of the devils that's in the details. Another problem is the notion of getting in the back of the line, so to speak, and that's going to be another issue.

  • 13:12:50

    NNAMDIWell, please explore that notion, explain the notion of getting in the back of the line for legal status? How long is the line currently?

  • 13:12:59

    PELTAWell, there isn't one line. That's one of the problems. If you are an Indian engineer waiting for a green card you might have a 15 year line. If you are the Filipino-U.S. citizen parent of an unmarried child over 21 you might have 17 year line. Some of the lines are over 20 years long and that's really a function of the prior broken system.

  • 13:13:26

    PELTAIt's a function of not having allocated enough numbers in the family categories and in the business categories. And so the notion of having to put 11 million people in the back of whatever may be the longest line, that's extremely problematic. So we're going to have to look and make sure that those backlogs are cleared out by operation of other provisions in the bills to make sure that the undocumented don't have to wait an unreasonable amount of time to be fully integrated into society.

  • 13:13:58

    NNAMDISpeaking about that line, here is Paul in Frederick, Md. who seems to be in one of those lines. Paul, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 13:14:07

    PAULHi, yes its Paul here. I'm a Canadian citizen. Been trying to, been working here in the States since '99 with a work visa, have five children, most of them have gone back to Canada because they aged out of the system and one's married an American but I'm still sitting with my wife, who's unable to work because she does not have a work permit, in the line since 2007 for a green card, just waiting for a green card to become available after going through posting my job and all the requirements you need to, you know, so that somebody else could, like you have to post your job.

  • 13:14:46

    PAULIf there's an American can fill it, they got to, you know, they can take it. We've been through all that and I've been sitting here waiting, you know, for five years now. I can see, I cringe when they start talking about, okay you know, we're going to kill off all these illegals, you know, the system is so broken now that, you know, waiting five years or whatever's taking the longer.

  • 13:15:08

    NNAMDIPaul, do you have a professional degree?

  • 13:15:11

    PAULI have a diploma. I have an equivalency of a B.A. I've been in HeliCom (sp?) 25 years.

  • 13:15:18

    NNAMDIWell, the reason I ask that question is because, Eleanor Pelta, it's my understanding that both reform plans also try to improve the opportunities for immigrants who come here with professional degrees. How do the plans address that population in which Paul may be included?

  • 13:15:33

    PELTAWell, both the Senate plan and the president's proposal want to do something to streamline green cards for people who have degrees in science technology, engineering and math. Both of them also propose to increase the numbers of employment base green cards available every year. So that should alleviate the backlog, but I think this caller is pointing out, you know, exactly what the problem is.

  • 13:16:03

    PELTAWe don't want to build the new system on the broke ruins of the old system. So we really have to clear out the backlogs so that those in the system now can get their green cards expeditiously and so that the program for the undocumented can work really well and really efficiently.

  • 13:16:23

    NNAMDIOur guest is Eleanor Pelta. She is immediate past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She's currently a partner at the law firm Morgan Lewis and Bockius. She joins us in studio. Paul, thank for your call. Here is Jose, in Loudon County, Va. Jose, your turn.

  • 13:16:40

    JOSEYes, I just want to make a comment moreover on immigration policy as a whole. You know, having passive citizenship or amnesty or whatever, that's a great idea as far as addressing the legal status in these individuals who are here without papers, bringing them into the fold and hopefully remove some of the motivation for them to become, you know, I would say fall through the cracks.

  • 13:17:12

    JOSEBut one thing that we're not addressing in any of this is what causes the demand for these people to become illegal immigrants in the first place? I would submit to you and we learned it with the Berlin Wall that it doesn't matter how many fences, landmines and guns you put on a wall. If you tell one man on the other side of that wall if he has a chance to support his family, you know, on the other side he's going to go through those landmines and those guns and try to jump the wall because he has a chance to support his family.

  • 13:17:43

    JOSEI would submit that the greatest weapon that we would have against illegal immigration would be to address our free trade policies in Latin America. Because of those free trade policies that, number one, loses us our jobs in the manufacturing sector in the United States.

  • 13:17:59

    NNAMDIWell, Jose, you do make a valid argument, but it does not seem to be an argument that is currently being considered, either by the White House or by the members of the U.S. Senate, at this point. But if you're simply interested in hearing what Eleanor Pelta feels about it, she'll be happy to tell you.

  • 13:18:17

    PELTAWell, you know, I think we're all fortunate to live in a country that's so successful, that it's a magnet to people from all over the world who want to come here and try to succeed and contribute. One of the problems with the 1986 Act was that it had legalization program, an enforcement program but it didn't have anything to address future immigration.

  • 13:18:39

    PELTAIt really didn't have a mechanism for anticipating, well okay in five, ten or 15 years how many hotel workers will we need and where will we need them? And how many people working at meat packing plants and how many people working in construction? The Senate proposal does have a future flow component to it.

  • 13:19:01

    PELTAWe don't know how it's going to work yet but they do mention in their proposal the notion that we should be able to look to the future and determine what we will need in terms of the different industries and the different regions in our country and be able to kind of turn the flow on when we need it and turn the flow off when we don't need it. So that may alleviate some of the concerns raised by the caller.

  • 13:19:27

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Speaking of the future, can you explain the road ahead? The Senate group says it wants to have a bill drafted by March. Is that realistic?

  • 13:19:38

    PELTAWell, it looks like everyone really kind of wants to participate in the process. We've seen a couple of independent stand-alone bills being introduced. Bills on stem, science technology, engineering and math and bills on entrepreneur visas and we've also heard yesterday that there is a group in the House of Representatives that is also drafting a bill. So I think everybody wants in on this. And given that scenario it may take a little bit longer than March to get a bill hammered out.

  • 13:20:14

    NNAMDIYou have been practicing immigration law since 1986, the last time there was amnesty in this country. What's your read on these plans? Are you excited, are you skeptical? What do you want any new program to be sure to do?

  • 13:20:29

    PELTAI am really excited and encouraged. I really think that the election was a game changer for immigration. The very next day after the election everyone was talking about immigration reform and the fact that this was one issue that both parties had to come together on. And I think that's the big difference here.

  • 13:20:50

    PELTASo I think that this can be done and it can be done in a way that really satisfies the needs of all the stake holders. I really would like to see a legalization program that is simple enough to be inviting to all of the people who could potentially be eligible for it, that doesn't pose so many challenges or make the process so impossibly long that people will just give up and go back into the shadows. I think that's very, very important.

  • 13:21:22

    PELTAWe all realize that enforcement has to be part of this as well. We understand that there will be a mandatory e-verify, use of the government's employment verification system. That is part of both the president's proposal and the senate proposal. I would also hope that that's simple and easy for employers to use and reliable so that employers don't have to worry about refusing a position to somebody who truly is eligible to work but, you know, came up as a false negative in a system. So those would be the two major things that I would hope for.

  • 13:22:02

    PELTAAs a business immigration lawyer, I think it's really important that we stay competitive here in this country. I see venture funds who -- that can't support the ideas of entrepreneurs because those entrepreneurs can't get visas to stay here and execute them. I think it's really important that we support innovators, entrepreneurs and the highly skilled in this bill as well. So I'm excited about that. That does seem to be covered and addressed.

  • 13:22:30

    NNAMDIHere is Raul in Silver Spring, Md. Raul, your turn.

  • 13:22:35

    RAULYes, hi. Thank you. I have a quick question. This is regarding a friend of mine who's been in the U.S. for the past 18 years, believe it or not on a citizen's visa. So -- because it's the only way for him to kind of stay here. So he has -- he's working on his third or fourth master's degree. He's worked already in corporate America. He's just got no record or anything like a criminal record meaning. So I'm wondering, will he qualify for this new reform?

  • 13:23:08

    NNAMDICan he go from professional student to, well, just a resident, permanent?

  • 13:23:14

    PELTAWe are really, really far away from the details on this proposal so it's very hard to take an individual case like that and say, yes that person will qualify or no that person will not qualify. We have to see statutory language. We have to see regulations. One would just hope that if someone has been studying and, you know, has a master's degree or...

  • 13:23:39

    NNAMDIThree, three.

  • 13:23:40

    PELTA...three master's degrees, you know, that they would have something to contribute and that we would be able to hold onto a person like that.

  • 13:23:48

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Here now is Ben in Washington, D.C. Ben, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:23:57

    BENYes, thank you very much for having me. My question kind of deals a lot with globalization and its concepts and impacts. So you have a lot of corporations that, you know, benefit globally from lower wages, which in turn, you know, creates, based off the opportunity arbitrage, greater perceived opportunities in the United States.

  • 13:24:17

    BENAnd I'm wondering how that kind of plays in to the policy. Because I think a lot of people are mis-educated in thinking that, oh you know, people just want to come not to the country illegally without really understanding the implication of even purchasing products that are made in that person's country where, you know, the wages are not equitable. So I'm wondering if, you know, you guys could kind of speak on that.

  • 13:24:43

    NNAMDIEleanor Pelta.

  • 13:24:44

    PELTAWell, I think that's a very legitimate concern. I mean, one of the advantages of bringing this whole population out of the shadows is to make sure that they can get paid a fair wage for the work that they do and that they're not being exploited. So that's, I think, a very important aspect to think about.

  • 13:24:59

    PELTAAnother thing to think about is that when an employer brings a person into their workforce -- a foreign national into their workforce as a temporary worker under H1B or tries to sponsor a worker for lawful permanent residence, they're typically required to offer the higher of the actual wage that similar employees are making or what the Department of Labor says is the prevailing wage. So there are fair wage guarantees already in a lot of our immigration programs so that we can make sure that everybody is really playing by the rules and that foreign workers are not exploited.

  • 13:25:40

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Ben. We got an email from Cheryl who asked, "How do the 11 million immigrants impact the health care budget in the United States?

  • 13:25:52

    PELTAWell, that's a good questions. I haven't done a lot of analysis on that but I would think that the notion of bringing 11 million people into the mainstream of the economy and having them pay taxes and having them contribute to social security would actually perhaps enlarge the general budget and essentially participate in, you know, our health care system, participate in paying for our health care system. So, you know, it's not an issue that I've studied to a great extent.

  • 13:26:28

    PELTAI do know that the overall numbers predicted in terms of contribution to the gross national product of bringing in this whole population are very, very positive. So I think it's supposed to be a net positive for the economy overall.

  • 13:26:46

    NNAMDIEleanor Pelta. She came in on short notice. Thank you so much for coming in the studio today. She's immediate past president of American Immigration Lawyers Association and partner at the law firm Morgan Lewis and Bockius. Thank you very much for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, energy drinks, are they really boosting us or just gaming us? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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