American dream - Biden era offers new hope for Jamaican immigrants in the shadows
Jamaican Jason W arrived in New York 10 years ago, seeking the American dream.
Because he has remained there illegally, he has lived in the shadows, taking whatever jobs he can to survive financially. When his mother died, he was unable to attend her funeral in Jamaica out of fear that he could not return to the United States.
“That was the hardest thing I ever had to do – choose between staying here or going home for my mother’s funeral,” Jason told The Gleaner.
Today, he and thousands of Caribbean expats are hopeful that when new US President Joe Biden sends his new immigration bill to Congress, it will be passed and signed into law so that they can emerge from the dark periphery.
Biden, who took charge at the White House on Wednesday, has promised a new immigration law that will provide a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million-plus who are living in the US illegally.
Under the terms of the proposed legislation, undocumented people will be able to apply for temporary legal status. After five years, if they pass criminal and national-security background checks and provide evidence of tax compliance, they can then apply for green cards.
Under this programme, green card holders, after three years, will be allowed to apply for US citizenship if they clear further national-security checks.
Only undocumented people in the US up to the start of 2021 will be able to apply under the new programme.
While the terms of the new legislation are not yet known, Jamaican immigration advocates have welcomed the new president’s intentions.
Wayne Golding, a Jamaican immigration attorney in Florida, said that diaspora leaders were committed to seeing immigration reform become reality.
“As Jamaicans, especially those in the legal field, we have stressed to the new administration to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people,” he said.
Golding said that he expects pushback to the proposed legislation from anti-immigrant forces in the Republican Party.
He pointed out that the proposed legislation will mean the continuation of family reunification.
“The fact is that immigration reform has been a low-hanging fruit for different administrations for decades. As immigrants, we have grown weary of the promises that have never materialised,” said Golding.
Dahlia Walker-Huntington, a Jamaican immigration attorney based in Florida, said that the proposal was spot on.
“It will be significant for Jamaicans. It is difficult to quantify the number of Jamaicans living in the United States out of status, so this will have a significant positive impact,” she told The Gleaner.
Walker-Huntington said the passage of new immigration legislation would allow undocumented people to become more gainfully employed and increase their economic power.
Out-of-status Jamaicans generally do not travel back to Jamaica in the event of death or other family emergency out of fear that they will not be allowed re-entry into the US.
Walker-Huntington also anticipates that those opposed to the normalisation of undocumented immigrants will seek to derail the legislation.
“It is going to be an uphill struggle, but we will have to mobilise to meet the challenge,” she said.
Irwine Clare, head of the New York-based Caribbean Immigration Service, said the Biden legislation would be a game-changer.
“It is a win-win for the country,” he said, adding that when expatriates prosper, the Caribbean does as well, hinting at the importance of remittances.
Remittances remain a mainstay of thousands of households in Jamaica, with inflows projected to decline to US$1.9 billion this fiscal year, down from US$2.3 billion pre-COVID-19.
Clare is also optimistic that the future holds fair prospects for immigrants categorised under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme - the so-called DREAM-ers.
Attorney Michelle Fanger said the proposed legislation offered new horizons for undocumented persons doing menial jobs “fighting to make ends meet”. She said that she was aware of many Jamaicans working below the minimum wage who live in constant fear of deportation.
“It is a great opportunity for those in the shadows to take advantage of the situation ... , regularise their status, and begin to live the American dream,” said Fanger.