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Kenyans in US illegally peg hopes on reforms

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US President Barack Obama delivers his address on immigration reform at Del Sol High School on January 29. Kenyans in the US are likely to increase investments locally if the plan to regularise the status of illegal immigrants becomes law. AFP

US President Barack Obama delivers his address on immigration reform at Del Sol High School on January 29. Kenyans in the US are likely to increase investments locally if the plan to regularise the status of illegal immigrants becomes law. AFP 

By David Mugwe

Posted  Wednesday, January 30   2013 at  21:36

In Summary

  • The Kenyans went to the US largely on student visas but opted to pursue other opportunities without regularising their immigration status.
  • They have for years failed to travel to Kenya because of fears that they would be unable to regain entry to the US.
  • Eight US senators said on Monday that they were sponsoring legislation that could see about 11 million illegal immigrants attain legal status.

Thousands of Kenyans living in the US illegally are pinning their hopes of a more direct engagement in the economy on drastic immigration reforms being discussed in Washington.

The Kenyans went to the US largely on student visas but opted to pursue other opportunities without regularising their immigration status. They have for years failed to travel to Kenya for both social and business purposes because of fears that they would be unable to regain entry to the US.

“When people get the proper documentation it gives them the ability to release money to invest knowing that they can come back and see what is being done,” said Ihara Kihara, a Kenyan who returned recently from the US to venture into real estate development.

Eight US senators said on Monday that they were sponsoring legislation that could see about 11 million illegal immigrants attain legal status.

Their plan — predicated on tighter border controls — was however, at variance with another outlined by President Barack Obama a day later promising a faster pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

“We all agree that these men and women should have to earn their way to citizenship,” president Obama said. “But for comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship.”

Under Obama’s plan, undocumented immigrants would first undergo national security and criminal background checks, pay penalties, learn English and be considered after foreigners seeking to immigrate legally.

“The time has come for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform. The time is now,” Reuters quoted Mr Obama saying.

It may be early but talk about comprehensively reforming the US immigration system has stirred hope among Kenyans living illegally in the world’s biggest economy that they could finally be on the path to attaining legal status, a move that could help them travel freely, spurring investments in their motherland and unlocking their potential in their adopted land.

“This can only be good because a significant number of Kenyans do not have their legal papers and many of these are very productive,” said Elkanah Odembo, Kenya’s Ambassador to the US in a telephone interview.

He said some Kenyans were already beneficiaries of last year’s limited reforms which allowed children of immigrants who were living in the US illegally to access certain services.

Many of the Kenyan’s living in the US and who are out of status went as students from the 1990s and, for a variety of reasons, did not return home when their visas expired.

This coincided with a period when the political atmosphere in Kenya was hostile to competition and economic opportunities were limited. The embassy, the Foreign Ministry and the US do not have data on how many Kenyans live in the US illegally.

The head of America’s directorate at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Florence Weche said she was yet to get details of the proposed changes but would help Kenyans living there attain legal recognition.

“If they (United States legislators) are changing the law, Kenyans will benefit. They will be a part of it,” she said.

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