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Bill raises hopes of immigration reform supporters

POSTED: April 19, 2013 1:27 a.m.

Four Democratic and four Republican senators formally unveiled a sweeping immigration bill Thursday at a news conference attended by traditional opponents from big business and labor, and conservative and liberal groups.

The lawmakers argued that this time, thanks to that broad-based support, immigration legislation can succeed in Congress.

“Powerful outside forces have helped defeat certain other initiatives in Washington, but on immigration, the opposite is proving true,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said a day after senators under intense lobbying pressure blocked a major gun control package. “I am confident this issue will not fall victim to the usual partisan deadlock.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center has long advocated immigration reform, citing a “patchwork” of laws and enforcement that often leaves immigrants underprotected and vulnerable.

“There is a patchwork of legal rights in different states. Having states decide what happens with immigrants is not working,” said Naomi Tsu from the SPLC.

The 844-page bill is designed to secure the border, allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country while requiring employers to verify their legal status, and put 11 million people here illegally on a path to citizenship, as long as certain border security goals are met first.

Tsu specializes in advocacy for low-skilled immigrants. The center has represented “several thousand guest workers” she said, including in Georgia.

“We see a lot of problems created by the current immigration system,” she said. “The bill is 844 pages, so I haven’t absorbed everything that is in it, but it is a good positive step toward what desperately needs to be done.”

Attorney David Kennedy practices immigration and nationality law in Gainesville, and said the law is “a step in the right direction.”

Kennedy said it would cost the U.S. $200 billion and 5 percent of the country’s labor force to deport every single one of the approximately 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally.

“Yes, we offer a path to citizenship to people who didn’t come here legally,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., anticipating opposition to the citizenship provision for illegal immigrants. “They’re here, and realistically there is nothing we can do to induce them all to return to their countries of origin. Many of them make valuable contributions.”

Tsu noted the unprecedented nature of such a provision.

“The bill creates, I believe for the first time, a road map for permanency for most low-skilled workers. In the past, they would have to have family connections,” she said. “The idea that lower-wage, lower-skilled workers could have access to a road map of citizenship is a powerful step, and I hope it makes it through the legislative process.”

Kennedy cited the economic benefit of immigrants that McCain referenced.

“Workers are not only producers; they’re consumers,” Kennedy said. “By coming in to fill jobs, they’re creating more supply and create more demand for workers by buying goods, spending the vast majority of money back into (the) economy.

“The downward effect on wages they create by being producers is more than counteracted by the upward.”

He said ultimately the legal avenues for working in the U.S. are a free-market ideal.

“If we believe in capitalism, then we believe that U.S. companies don’t need the government to tell them if they need workers — they can do that themselves,” he said.

In Georgia, and Gainesville in particular, that often encompasses work in the poultry industry.

Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, said that while he hasn’t had an opportunity yet to study the entire bill, his initial reaction is optimistic.

“I understand it is over 800 pages long, but from what I’ve read it appears to be a serious attempt at comprehensive immigration reform. The bill seems to balance the need for increased border security with a program to issue work visas for general skilled employees in the future, such as ones needed in the poultry industry, when the demand for workers exceeds what the domestic labor supply is able to offer,” he said. “I expect there to be a robust debate in the Senate and House and hopefully a balanced bill will emerge that addresses immigration reform in a comprehensive way.”

Kennedy said the bill was not without some concerns, citing what he said were “very low” quotas for visa applications for unskilled workers: 22,000 in the first year of implementing the overhaul.

“That is a number that is almost absurdly low,” he said.

Skilled foreign workers are most often in the technology industries, with India and China harboring a robust supply of skilled workers. The cap on skilled workers in the bill’s current version is 65,000.

Tsu had concerns as well, saying that the overhaul doesn’t address the issues that coupling visa status with employers creates for mistreated workers, too afraid to speak up and lose legal status.

But overall advocates are pleased to see the bill’s introduction.

“There is a very optimistic tone. People have been waiting for this for many, many years, and the issue has been so thoroughly demagogued that nothing has been done,” Kennedy said.

The 2012 election and widely favorable margin of Latino votes to President Barack Obama heightened the need for Republicans to act on the issue.

“It has become politically expedient to see reason on this issue, so the stars are aligned for something to happen, and something really might, and it might be good for a lot of people. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the current system is broken,” Kennedy said. “The GOP understands that things are going to tilt to the left, and they don’t want to lose their seats. We’re seeing less essentially racist propaganda and more real, factual information.”

Groups widely classified as being “hate”-oriented organizations until recent years had regularly testified on Capitol Hill, Kennedy said.

“I think the social change is taking place from the top down and bottom (up). They’re going on at same time,” he said. “People seem to be coming around to fact that immigrants are here to work. People want a good life for their kids. How can I blame (them) since I want the same thing?”

Tsu echoed the sentiment of compassion to immigrants in the land that takes pride in upward mobility and the “American dream.”

“As a nation of immigrants, in the past, we used to welcome people who helped build the country. It’s (a) relatively recent idea that people come in to work and leave,” Tsu said.

And for those millions who did choose to migrate and stay illegally, it’s about embracing communities, rather than alienating them.

“It’s about bringing people out of the shadows, rather than creating a new group of exploited people in our country,” Tsu said.

Support for the bill is already being put to the test as conservatives grow more vocal in opposition. Two Republican senators held a dueling news conference.

The bill will get its first hearing today before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Associated Press contributed to this report


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