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Immigration proposal brings doubts, concerns

At age 6, Juan Rodriguez and his Colombian family came to America.

In 2009, about 14 years later, Rodriguez finally succeeded in getting a green card and a work permit allowing him to remain here legally.

Millions of others have not been as lucky.

So it probably comes as no surprise that Rodriguez has his doubts about a sweeping outline announced Monday by several U.S. senators, including Marco Rubio of Florida, that could make legalization a reality for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

"I'm definitely very concerned," said Rodriguez, 23, a Tampa resident who has helped the Florida Immigrant Coalition push for comprehensive reform. "And there's a lot of people who are very concerned."

He is among immigration advocates and lawyers across Tampa Bay who view the Senate plan as a bittersweet moment in their reform efforts.

"We're delighted with it. No doubt about that," said St. Petersburg immigration lawyer Arturo Rios Jr. "It should definitely give hope to the entire immigrant community."

But while the framework could pave the way for reform, some solutions may create more problems, lawyers and advocates say.

Among the unanswered questions is the pathway to citizenship.

The five-page outline notes that immigrants would have to pay a fine and back taxes and pass a background check to reach "probationary legal status," allowing them to work legally.

"What does that fine mean? How much of a fine is this? Will it be something reasonable?" Rodriguez said. "It's really all going to come down to what the specific language of these provisions is going to be when it gets drafted."

The probationary status, Rodriguez added, is also a "huge determining factor."

"It's great to have a work permit, great to have a driver's license," he said, but only U.S. citizens are "protected under the laws of this country."

Bill Flynn, Tampa immigration lawyer, agreed. The pathway to citizenship will be the "hot button" for reform.

In a news conference Monday, lawmakers had few answers to some of the questions posed by the immigrant community.

They did say some young immigrants would be granted a faster path to citizenship, and agricultural workers would benefit from a different process than the larger community of undocumented residents.

But some lawyers still expect the new reform to be met with trepidation from many undocumented immigrants who distrust the government.

In August, the federal government began a deferred action program that allows some immigrants to remain here for two years; few young immigrants took advantage of the program.

In recent months, the number of applicants surged, reaching more than 400,000 in January compared to about 150,000 applications filed by September, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The proposed reform may experience the same sluggish start.

"There's always going to be a lot of skepticism," Rios said. "There's always going to be a little hesitation until people start to see what's really happening."

Several lawyers and advocates said the framework outlines encouraging proposals, including a way of "keeping the world's best and brightest" by awarding green cards to immigrants who received a doctorate or master's degree in select majors, including math and science, from an American university.

Despite his concerns, the fact that the plan was created by both Republican and Democratic senators also is "encouraging," Rodriguez said.

"It's just super, super meaningful," Rodriguez said. "There's going to be so much momentum this week and in the months ahead."

Edwin Enciso, organizer with Comprehensive Immigration Reform Now, said now is not the time to "fight concerns."

"Not everyone is going to get everything they want," Enciso said. "But if we continue with good will, we can make great history."

Laura C. Morel can be reached at lmorel@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386.

Immigration proposal brings doubts, concerns 01/28/13 [Last modified: Monday, January 28, 2013 11:32pm]
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