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.
Data from the US department of state, however, shows that 3,211 permanent residence visas were issued by the US embassy in Nairobi in the 2012 fiscal year compared to 4,024 immigrant visas in the previous year and 4,741 in 2010.
Many of the Kenyans living in the US illegally are not able to travel to Kenya, even for family events like weddings, graduations and burials because they would not be allowed to travel back to the US.
This has hindered them from taking advantage of investment opportunities in Kenya with those choosing to do so through intermediaries burning their fingers from cost escalations and diversion of funds.
“Kenyans with legal status are able to relay investment opportunities to others. The ability for individuals to move money will be enhanced. The benefits are enormous,” Mr Kihara said.
Mr Odembo said a large number of Kenyans, many of them well educated, who work up to three jobs would benefit the most if their status was confirmed because they would work and invest without the fear of being deported.
They are only able to work illegally at places which do not check for a person’s legal status. Even when sending money back home, they are forced to use informal channels or go through third parties, raising the cost of remittances.
“Some might start getting actively involved in the Kenya economy because they would be able to return to the United States without being denied a visa,” University of Nairobi’s Business School economics lecturer X.N. Iraki said.
According to the Central Bank, Kenyans living abroad sent Sh99.52 billion ($1.17 billion) at the end of last year, almost three and a half times the Sh28.75 billion ($338 million) remitted in 2004.
With about half of the remittances originating from North America, the amounts could go up substantially if the proposed immigration reforms become law.
Although the immigrants would be eligible for citizenship without leaving America it would take more than 10 years from now for them to gain the coveted status. Some of the applications for permanent residence being processed by the US government date back to 2001.
“People are optimistic especially because of the outcome of the last elections. It is encouraging but we will have to wait and see,” said Ben Ngigi, a community leader in Oklahoma and contact person for Fountain Enterprise Programme (FEP), a Kenyan based investment company.
The US Department of State says that 482,300 immigrant visas - which allow for permanent residency - were issued by posts outside the US last year compared to 476,249 immigrant visas in 2011 and 482,052 issued in the 2010.
“Beyond politics, it is fair to regularise the status of the 11 million plus illegal immigrants because all Americans, except the natives, trace their history to some immigration. This change might free government resources which are used to monitor the illegal immigrants for other services,” Dr Iraki said.
He said the change would enable the well-educated to find quality jobs while those without marketable skills would have an opportunity to acquire more competencies.
Anti-immigration waves in the US picked up pace after the global financial crisis which saw millions of Americans loose their jobs. It had started with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that resulted in stringent measures being instituted to track migrants.
Tough laws were passed in many states to the extent that immigrants started leaving for states that were perceived to be more ‘immigrant friendly.’
In the US the proposed changes have been received well especially by Hispanics who comprise the majority of illegal immigrants and who voted overwhelmingly for President Obama.