Retired ICE lawyer believes "simple" law update could solve immigration problem

Immigration attorney Robert Bingham in his Salem home Thursday, March 2, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Immigration attorney Robert Bingham in his Salem home Thursday, March 2, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Salem — When it comes to talk about fixing this country’s immigration laws and policies, words like “simple” and “nonpartisan” are rarely part of the conversation.

But resident Robert Kim Bingham, retired after a 37-year career as an attorney with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has been using just those words in advancing a proposal to update an existing and little-used immigration law on the books since 1929. He believes changing a single date in the law could offer an easy path out of the complex, politically charged quagmire that’s left action toward reform in limbo for a decade or more.

“I like to think it’s a breakthrough proposal that people aren’t aware of,” he said during an interview Thursday. “It would be a very simple fix that would allow (congressmen) to put their energy into a constructive action toward a strong bipartisan fix that would take one afternoon.”

Bingham, 74, worked as special counsel for ICE in immigration courts in Washington, Boston and Hartford before his retirement in 2009. Over that time, he learned about Section 249 of the Immigration and Nationality Act that provided a way for immigrants who entered the country illegally, but had established themselves as law-abiding residents for more than a decade, to apply to federal immigration authorities for legal resident status. If approved, they could then apply for citizenship after five years.

“It’s administered on a case-by-case basis,” Bingham said. “They have to be persons of good moral character, and every applicant has the burden of proof to establish eligibility.”

The law, he noted, was updated several times over the years, through both Republican and Democratic administrations, establishing it as longstanding policy. The last time it was updated was under Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1984, when he approved moving the date qualifying immigrants would have to use to verify residence in this country to 1972.

In signing the measure, Reagan said, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally.”

“Since Reagan updated it,” Bingham said, “that might please Republicans that it can be updated again.”

Bingham suggests the date to be updated to 2005 or 2007. The update, he said, would provide a way for youths brought to this country illegally as children who now have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status toward legal resident status and ultimately citizenship. The DACA program, created in 2012, requires youths to be fingerprinted and photographed and pay a $495 application fee to obtain a two-year DACA identification card. But other undocumented immigrants could benefit, too, Bingham believes.

“It would be for everyone who’s been here and has established deep roots,” he said. “It would relieve a lot of them of their immigration distress. Everyone should be entitled to the benefits the law provides, but this law is losing relevance because it hasn’t been updated.”

Bingham said during his time as an ICE attorney, he was long concerned about the law becoming obsolete, and petitioned the American Immigration Attorneys Association to push for an update. But after President Trump took office and began enacting policies to intensify immigration enforcement, Bingham decided to try again, believing a simple solution free of charged rhetoric was needed now more than ever.

“That prompted me to try to do more in my retirement,” he said.

Response thus far, however, has been muted. U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, along with the state’s two Democratic senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, have received Bingham’s proposal, and to date only Murphy has commented.

“Our immigration system has been badly broken for a long time, and President Trump’s reckless executive orders have only made it worse,” Murphy said in a statement. “What we need is a grown-up conversation about immigration that recognizes that there is no easy fix. We need to do it all — secure our borders, deport violent criminals, keep families together and allow people who have worked hard and paid their taxes to come out of the shadows and work toward citizenship.”

Murphy said he is supportive of proposals being advanced by Sens. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and Dick Durban, D-Ill., to provide DACA students a path to citizenship. Of Bingham’s specific proposal, he said, “I’m willing to look at any proposal that helps bring us closer to a fairer, safer immigration system.”

Bingham is also hoping for a response from Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., a former immigration attorney, and has alerted the Connecticut Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association to his idea.

Stamford Attorney Douglas Penn, advocacy chairman of the state immigration lawyers group, called Bingham’s plan a “simple and elegant solution.”

Despite that, he was not optimistic it could receive bipartisan support. The “enforcement only” camp in Congress is too strong for a “simple, clean reform law” to get serious consideration, he said.

But Wilton attorney Michelle Ross, vice chairwoman of the state immigration lawyers group, said it may be worthwhile for immigration reform groups to get behind the plan. At the very least, it might move the conversation out of the current state of impasse.

“There have been a lot of suggestions made to take provisions in the Immigration and Nationality Act” and rework them to achieve immigration reform, she said. “But in the past couple of decades, nothing’s been done to really address it.”

Rita Provatas, a New London immigration attorney, has also reviewed Bingham’s proposal, and talked to colleagues about it at immigration court in Hartford this week.

“It would be the easiest solution of course,” she said in an email message. “You give most of the undocumented population the ability to file for lawful permanent residents while also balancing and prohibiting those with serious criminal records from gaining status in the U.S. ... Once they receive their green cards, it is a five-year wait until they are eligible to become U.S. citizens. The beauty of this statue is its simplicity.”

She doubts, however, that such a straightforward approach could survive in the highly partisan atmosphere in Congress.

“Interestingly,” she said, “a Republican colleague of mine also pointed out that the Republicans really do not want to legalize such a large undocumented population because they do not want them eventually to be able to vote in our elections. The fear, according to my colleague, is that they will become Democrats.”

Still, Bingham isn’t giving up, hoping to interest more lawmakers, immigrant advocates and others.

“I would call upon the immigrant community and the American Immigration Lawyers Association and nonprofit organizations to contact their elected officials and tell them about this,” he said.

j.benson@theday.com

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