LAWRENCE — Illegal immigrants regard relief from being deported as more important than winning a path to citizenship, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows.
Strong majorities of both Hispanics and Asian-Americans continue to back a pathway to citizenship, 89 percent and 72 percent, respectively, according to Pew. Still, by 55 percent to 35 percent, Hispanics said being able to live and work in the United States legally without the threat of deportation was more important. Among Asian-Americans, the ratio was 49 percent to 44 percent.
Avoiding deportation is “the main concern,” said attorney Zoila Gomez of Lawrence, who specializes in immigration law.
“You want to be able to work in the United States,” she explained.
Fending off “the immediate threat of removal from the United States” is of much greater concern to someone who is in the country illegally than a path to citizenship, said attorney Sal Tabit of Methuen, who also represents clients facing immigration problems.
“What can I do to legally document myself?” is a question frequently asked by illegal immigrants, he said.
Not all Latino immigrants seek to become American citizens, according to the Pew study.
Of Hispanic immigrants who came to the United States legally, just 44 percent have become citizens, due in part to the cost of applying as well as worries about passing the English part of the citizenship test. Among immigrants from Mexico, the largest country of origin, the share is even lower, at 36 percent.
“There’s no question that these groups want a pathway to citizenship for the unauthorized, but the surveys also show that, especially for Latinos, it’s the threat of deportation that casts the longest shadow on their communities,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, Pew’s director of Hispanic research and author of the report.
Earlier this year, the Senate passed far-reaching immigration legislation that would strengthen border enforcement and allow a 13-year pathway to citizenship. But activity has stalled in the GOP-controlled House, with the citizenship provision a major sticking point.
U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., who represents the Merrimack Valley, expressed optimism that immigration reform might have a better chance of being enacted next year.
“The issue of reforming our immigration system has been gaining momentum and it would be a shame to allow that support to expire. The American people want action. I believe we need a comprehensive, multi-faceted plan for true, bipartisan immigration reform, employing ideas from both Democrats and Republicans alike,” Tsongas said in a statement. “The benefits of which will be far-reaching and long-lasting. True immigration reform will require strong bipartisan cooperation and we have seen signs that there could be movement on a bill in the coming year. I hope that is the case and will continue to urge the Republican leadership in the House to make this a priority.”
The delay has put pressure on President Obama to act, as he did last year in halting deportations for some young immigrants. Under his administration, deportations of immigrants in the country illegally have hovered near 400,000 annually, with more than nine in 10 of the deportees from Latin America. That level continues a trend of rising deportations that began during the George W. Bush administration.
Any action by Obama to halt deportations would mean that immigrants here illegally would in effect get interim legal relief; however, only action by Congress could give the immigrants legal status.
In recent weeks, 29 House Democrats urged Obama in a letter to suspend deportations; last month, “executive order” was the rallying cry of hecklers at an Obama Democratic fundraiser in San Francisco.
It is generally estimated that there are 11 million illegal aliens living in the United States. Trying to round them all up and deport them would be “crazy,” Tabit said.
Tsongas said such a move would not be “feasible.”
“Reform legislation, such as what the Senate passed this past year, clarifies many aspects of the path to citizenship, places restrictions and requirements on undocumented residents and aims to ensure they are working towards citizenship. Significant reform that includes a clearer path would help make seeking citizenship a priority for undocumented immigrants,” Tsongas said.