Northeast Georgians are waiting and watching with hope that the U.S. Congress’ efforts at immigration reform will make life better for them.
Those hopes pinned to the end results may be different depending on who you ask, but residents, business leaders and lawmakers agree the system isn’t working.
President Barack Obama acknowledged earlier this month that Congress’ efforts would not conclude before the August recess. The Senate has passed a comprehensive bill, but the House isn’t expected to take up any legislation before the break.
Gainesville immigration attorney David Kennedy said he liked the Senate bill, but some Republican members have rejected the proposal and oppose allowing people who came to this country illegally to earn citizenship. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said he hopes the House of Representatives will fix the things he didn’t like in the Senate bill.
The landmark bill passed by the Senate last month would tighten border security, expand the highly skilled worker program and set up new guest worker arrangements for lower-skilled workers and farm laborers.
It would also provide a pathway to citizenship for many of the 11 million immigrations illegally in the U.S., one that includes paying fees and learning English, among other steps.
An amendment to the bill would add thousands more border patrol agents, more fencing between Mexico and the U.S. and billions in equipment technology upgrades.
“Any immigration bill must first secure the borders, and then make the path for legal entry smoother,” Chambliss said in a June statement. “I hope the House can fix some of the problems my colleagues and I have identified in this bill.”
Since 1986, the number of agents at the border has increased while the number of arrests has decreased because people cross in more remote areas, Kennedy said.
Many of Kennedy’s clients would prefer to work here and then go back to their home country, he said.
“The notion about ‘We need more border security and we need to meet these goals’ before things go into effect is really sort of ridiculous,” Kennedy said. “They would rather be able to be successful at their home, but the problem is they can’t do that for a wide variety of reasons.”
Many of their home countries have issues of poverty and crime. The border becomes more of a focus, but immigrants come to the U.S. from around the world.
The length of time people stay in the country has gone up because if illegal immigrants are caught, they are barred from returning for three to 10 years or more. So they stay, fall in love and start families, Kennedy said.
Gainesville resident Fabiola Saras hopes reform allows her husband to come to her. He’s stuck in Mexico after he was caught trying to re-enter the country illegally after leaving to care for his sick mother there. He is barred for 10 years, leaving Saras to care for their 2-year-old son. She is a legalized U.S. citizen, the daughter of an American citizen who gave birth to her in Mexico.
She and her mother have a genetic medical condition for which there is no cure. Her father also is having health problems. The couple applied for a humanitarian wavier, but were denied.
“If I get sick, who’s going to take care of my son without my husband?” she asked. “We had a house, and everything had to be sold.”
Saras is hopeful because the Senate bill has a pathway to citizenship.
“With a reasonable system, people may be able to come back and forth,” Kennedy said.
GOP House leaders have said they want to do a series of smaller bills people can understand, starting with border security, rather than taking the Senate’s more encompassing approach.
Freshman Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga, said he hopes to fix the broken system.
“If you don’t have border security, if you don’t have control over who’s coming in and who’s coming out, the rest of it is really just going to continue and fester,” Collins said.
Hall County resident Betsy Escamilla will start her first teaching job in the fall and said parents can be afraid to be involved with their children at school because they are afraid of local authorities. She hopes the reform will help people in her community come out of the darkness, free from fear.
“That the parent can actually attend parental involvement meetings without being scared to drive without a license,” Escamilla said of advantages of passing legislation. “Just the peace of mind that students in Hall County and Gainesville City School students will get.”
Escamilla, 30, is a U.S. citizen, but some of her family members are not. Whether legal or illegal, the Hispanic community is contributing to the economy of Gainesville and paying taxes, she said.
Georgia Poultry Federation President Mike Giles said he likes ideas both the Senate and the House have come up with.
He said he hopes Congress can agree on a plan that addresses major issues for the poultry industry, including border security, stronger employment verification, clear anti-discrimination laws and new changes to the current guest worker program.
“Identity theft is an important concern that should be addressed in any immigration bill that is ultimately adopted,” Giles said in an email interview.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.