The debate over how to treat millions of undocumented immigrants is as headline-grabbing as it is polarizing.
Standing in its shadow is U.S. policy on the people who came here legally, who followed a meticulous bureaucratic process and have spent tens of thousands of dollars to be here only to routinely face getting kicked out of the country. On Wednesday morning at a crowded Italian restaurant on 66th Street in Pinellas Park, U.S. Rep. David Jolly (R-Indian Shores) announced he is filing a bill that would allow certain immigrants who are here legally to stay after a certain amount of time.
Jolly's bill pertains to those working in the U.S. under an E-2 Investor Visa. That kind of visa requires recipients to invest in the U.S. economy, typically by opening a business and employing people, but they have to reapply for that visa every couple of years, and often have to go back to their home country during the process.
“We see everyday the debate over immigration reform and it's focused on only those who are here without documentation; only those who have come here illegally," Jolly told the crowd, which largely comprised people who came to the U.S. under an E-2. "And while we must address that reform as well, and I believe we do, I think we have to reform, we can't possibly begin to reform the immigration system that involves only those who are here without documentation without recognizing that our legal immigration system has failed, and has failed each and every one of you.”
Jolly's bill, he which he said he plans on filing in the next week or so, would put E-2 visa holders on a fast track to citizenship once they are here legally for 10 years. It would also allow their children, who are currently vulnerable for deportation once they turn 21 (unless they get an E-2 or student visa), to be covered under their parents' visas through age 26.
It would help people like Sesto Ramadori, owner of Da Sesto Italiano Ristorante e Vino, the restaurant where Wednesday's event took place. Originally from the Marche region of Italy, Ramadori has been in the U.S. (by way of Canada, where he has citizenship) for 18 years. He just underwent the E-2 visa application process — again — last summer.
"We went through the all the paperwork and filed an application," he said. "It's not just the matter of an extension. You literally have to do all the paperwork to show that your business is viable and that you're employing people... It's a lot of money, it's a lot of uncertainty.”
St. Petersburg immigration lawyer Andy Strickland, Ramadori's attorney, said the process is quite costly.
“We're looking at $4,000 to $5,000,” Strickland said. “Plus, if they decide to go abroad for their visa instead of extending their status here with the (U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services), if they don't do that, then they have to go abroad and get a visa, they have expenses with that as well.”
To him, Jolly's bill makes sense.
“Why chase people away who came here the right way, who are doing things the right way, who are creating jobs for U.S. citizens?" he said. "I think we should reward people who are doing things the right way and give them an opportunity to keep doing things the right way.”
Jolly said while there are some people on the extreme opposition side of the immigration spectrum who don't want any new citizens not born on American soil, he thinks the law is so common-sense that it ought to easily pass.
“I think people in Congress will recognize the importance of addressing legal immigration at the same time we're having a national debate about illegal immigration," he said. "It's only fair that we do so and it's right that we do so.”
He added that the bigger challenge might be at the procedural level; passing a small piece of legislation to reform part of the U.S.'s immigration policy, given the push for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), and that including the bill as part of a bigger CIR proposal is something he is willing to talk about.
“Whenever you have comprehensive immigration reform, it is hard to pass small provisions," he said. "This one, I hope, is a very simple one that we could move outside of the comprehensive immigration reform. Let's recognize the contribution of legal immigrants now, but it may be that this gets wrapped into comprehensive immigration reform, and I'm okay with that. We're prepared to have that conversation.”
Zoe Adams, who emigrated from the southern coast of England with her husband as runs a pool maintenance company in Polk County and is working to reform the E-2 visa program, said she's optimistic about the bill.
“I really believe that the reason why it has not been changed, up to now, is because nobody's asked,” she said.