For an estimated 12 million undocumented men, women and children — mostly Mexican — the next six months will be interesting. They, along with the rest of the country, will be following closely the tack Congress takes on the nation’s perplexing immigration issue.
Immigration has divided families, sometimes literally as well as figuratively. For those caught in the crosshairs, it has made uncertain the simplest elements of day-to-day living. And, it has fueled careers for politicians who have elevated anti-immigration rhetoric to the level of xenophobic poetry.
After nearly a generation of lip service on reshaping the immigration puzzle, Democrats and Republicans, are finally in agreement that it may be time to get serious. And this new reality is coalescing on both state and federal levels.
In Colorado, for example, state lawmakers are now debating Senate Bill 33, a measure that would provide in-state college tuition for undocumented students. Similar legislation has been introduced for the past decade and each time failed.
But two new variables have come into play this time around. Democrats control both houses in the legislature and Republicans are now looking more closely at both the social and political realities of an immigrant population that is entrenched in cities and towns across Colorado.
The bill’s co-sponsors, Pueblo Sen. Angela Giron and Denver Rep. Crisanta Duran, both Democrats, are confident the bill will pass and with Republican support.
“It makes sense for our state; economic sense,” Giron says. “We can’t afford to continue the brain drain,” when there are more than a dozen other states these undocumented students can choose among for in-state tuition. Kansas, Texas and Utah are among those states offering in-state tuition to undocumented students.
Duran says votes for passage will come from both sides of the aisle — including support from former ardent opponents of the legislation. “I think everybody has to make their own individual decision,” says the Denver Democrat. “But this year, we’re going to be able to get bipartisan support.”
Exactly what changed to bring about this seismic shift and cause Republicans to take a new look at immigration can be traced in part back to the November election. When Republicans analyzed the numbers, one thing stood out among all others.
Nationally, Latinos voted overwhelming for President Obama. Like all voters, they weighed a number of things before casting their ballot. But, too many were turned off by Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s idea of self-deportation and the idea that they were “takers” and not legitimate contributors to the economy.
Simple arithmetic told Republicans that they could be facing political irrelevance if they continue to lose 70 percent of this emerging voting bloc.
In Washington, a bi-partisan group of eight senators, including Colorado’s Sen. Michael Bennet, are spearheading immigration reform. Joining Bennet are fellow Democrats Dick Durbin, Robert Menendez and Chuck Schumer. Republicans include John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake and Marco Rubio.
The ‘Gang of Eight,’ as it is known, is proposing a four-pronged plan for immigration reform. It includes securing the border, streamlining the current immigration process with an emphasis on the role immigrants play in the economy, creating an employment verification system to eliminate exploitation of workers and fine-tuning the temporary immigrant worker program.
“They’re committed to doing it for all the right reasons,” Bennet said who met with about 150 Latino business leaders and community members in Denver last Friday. “I do know this is a really important issue for us as a country for a whole variety of issues.”
The immigration impasse and desire to fix it has brought together not only opposition political leaders but also such disparate groups as the normally conservative and business-friendly U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Service Employees International Union, SEIU, a group that represents janitors, food service workers and health care employees.
But if anyone believes that change will be quick or palatable for ‘shadow dwellers,’ immigration attorneys caution that it might be wise not reach that conclusion. According to the government, not all immigrants are created equal.
Immigrants must get into lines the government assigns. Some lines move fast, others seem not to move at all. An immigrant doctor or scientist, for example, can get a visa in as few as 120 days. But in a slow-moving visa category, for a farm worker or hotel domestic, the pace can be glacial.
“Most of my clients are not scientists,” says Denver immigration attorney Jessica Kunevicius. Those who come to her for a consultation don’t usually get the news they had hoped for. “They don’t realize how long a bill takes to become law.”
A naturalized U.S. citizen cannot simply ask for a sibling to be allowed entry into the country. “Some folks from Mexico have been waiting up to sixteen years,” Kunevicius says. “I don’t know if that’s a real solution.”
But some lines only grow longer for immigrants. A Filipino petitioning on behalf of a sibling has little reason for optimism. A petition that may have been filed on June 1, 1989, remains essentially untouched. With policies unchanged, the wait could be up to six more years.
Opponents of immigration reform say that what the ‘Gang of Eight’ is proposing amounts to amnesty. They say this in spite of the fact that the party’s most revered name, Ronald Reagan, supported amnesty in the ‘80s.
Anti-immigration reform Republicans say this new move is tantamount to rewarding people with visas and citizenship for breaking the law, entering the country illegally.
But others, including Dallas Morning News columnist, Mercedes Olivera, in a recent piece, says immigration reform will only come when the focus is placed where it should be: on the economy.
Immigrants pay taxes, she says. They are also entrepreneurial. They open new businesses and create jobs at a rate that exceeds the rest of the population. In a recent column, Olivera wrote about another very immediate problem the country is facing.
Like a number of other countries, U.S. birthrates are down. Baby boomers are retiring at a rate of 10,000 a day and becoming eligible for Medicare. Left unaddressed, the U.S. may not have enough workers to fill the void.
But just because reform has the President’s approval does not erase arguments from the most conservative wing of the Republican Party.
Critics will continue to argue that immigration reform will only encourage an influx of poorly educated or impoverished newcomers. And cries that immigrants will take jobs from Americans, tax already over-taxed resources including schools and health care and compete unfairly by doing work for lower wages will only grow louder.
Also, just because immigration reform has the President’s approval, there is still a great deal of skepticism that reform will become reality.
Pro-immigrant forces say they don’t believe there is seriousness behind the movement and point to the president’s record number of deportations. While the administration says it truly wants to address immigration, it has not ordered ICE to cut back efforts in this vein and families, say critics, continue to be splintered.
Immigration reform will not address everything in a very complex equation. But failing to have a thoughtful, candid discussion on immigration will not solve anything at all.