HOUSTON – Martin Saucedo, an illegal immigrant from Michoacan, Mexico, would like to participate in a guest worker program like one Congress is considering as a part of sweeping immigration reform.
But he's worried whether a proposal to grant millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship is really just an effort to find and deport them.
"It's not a good idea. It won't give us what we need, to be able to come back," Saucedo said in Spanish during a break from clearing tree branches from power lines while working at a landscaping company.
A bill before the Senate calls for providing up to 200,000 new temporary guest worker visas a year. Guest workers would be able to seek legal status on their own if the government determines American workers aren't available to fill the affected jobs. Temporary workers would be required to return home at the end of the program.
"Absolutely there is concern," said Kathleen Walker, vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "'The government is your friend' is not the mantra of this area. ... For those who feel they have nothing in their home country and have lived underground for years, how is that an incentive for them to come forward?"
Despite some immigrants' fears, the immigration debate has recently inspired more to seek legal permanent residency and citizenship.
Nationwide, the number of applications for permanent residency has jumped from 57,011 in January to 74,943 in March, said Maria Elena Garcia-Upson, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Citizenship applications have increased from 53,390 to 58,586 during the same period.
"Anytime there is anything that might affect people's status here in the United States, there tends to be an increase in applications," said Garcia-Upson. "We expect these numbers to increase even more."
Maria Robles, 55, an immigrant from Monterrey, Mexico, said in Spanish she is glad her permanent legal residency application has already been approved because she would be afraid to apply for it in the current political climate.
"Many times the government says one thing, but in the end they might want to just deport all the immigrants back to their countries," she said.
Robles, who has been in the country for 12 years, said she doesn't think the guest worker proposal will benefit illegal immigrants because many of them won't want to return to their home countries after their visas expire.
Community groups who work with illegal immigrants said they have been counseling many who are worried that Congress hasn't yet decided on anything.
"I think a lot of people don't know. They hear talk, the president is talking about immigration, Congress is talking about legalization, and people want to know what's happening and what the law says," said Adam Chester, supervising attorney for Catholic Charities Immigration and Legal Services division in Dallas.
Lately, Dallas immigration attorney Sarah Brown speaks at least once a day with a client who thinks legislation was approved.
"They freak out or get all excited ... so we kind of have to have a little civics lesson," she said. "I tell them to keep listening, the cue is when the president has signed it into law."
Eduardo Patino, 29, an immigrant from Mexico legally in the country on a work permit, said he has paid his taxes, while his wife, who is in the country illegally, doesn't drive because she doesn't have a license. They've tried to stay out of trouble and show they are model citizens, he said.
But he still is concerned it might not be enough and he could be forced to return to Mexico.
"I already have kids here," said Patino, who lives in Chicago but was visiting relatives in Dallas. "I've made my life here. I can't take them to a country that's not theirs."