Immigration Reform Bill Sparks Cautious Optimism and Lots of Questions Among Immigrants in Arizona

The immigration debate reached Capitol Hill again -- Photo: Jelena Kopanja.

The immigration debate reached Capitol Hill again. (Photo: Jelena Kopanja)

PHOENIX, Arizona — After members of Congress led by Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) introduced a bill that would allow the legalization of millions of undocumented workers, immigrant communities in Arizona reacted with cautious optimism. In a state that has been at the forefront of hard-line immigration initiatives, the news brought some relief but also questions about the likely fate of those who’ve been swept up in the state’s law enforcement dragnet.

“We’re looking at this very cautiously,” said Antonio Velazquez, director of the Maya-Chapin Organization that represents over 3,000 Guatemalans of indigenous origin in the Phoenix metropolitan area. “We don’t want to be giving people false hopes.”

The bill was introduced Tuesday, and is widely seen as the first step toward what many anticipate will be a divisive immigration debate in 2010. Next year Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is expected to introduce a bill that reflects the Obama administration’s approach to reform.

The Gutiérrez bill, known as the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 (CIR ASAP) includes border enforcement provisions, the strengthening of employer sanctions and the legalization of the undocumented. It would allow undocumented immigrants to attain legal status if they prove that they have been working, pay a $500 fine, learn English and have no criminal record.

News of the bill’s introduction brought a sigh of relief from people under the stress of constant persecution by local police in Arizona

“This feels to me like a magnificent opportunity for all of us to come out into the light, because we’re invisible the way we are,” said Natividad Meza, a 40-year-old undocumented immigrant.

For migrant families in Arizona, where state laws have been used to criminalize the immigrant population, many questions remain. For example, what will happen to people prosecuted for working with false documents? Would they be disqualified from a legalization program?

“I’m fearful because I don’t know what will happen with me,” said Meza, who was arrested for working at a hotel with false documents. She now has a felony on her record and doesn’t know whether it could hurt her chances of achieving legal status.

“It will depend on every individual case,” said Margarita Silva, a criminal defense and immigration attorney.

Silva doesn’t think that this bill –or any other proposals, for that matter– will address the situation of people who became a target of Arizona laws aimed at undocumented immigrants.

“It is very sad, because if we were in another state these people wouldn’t have been prosecuted,” she said. “But because of the politics here they might be excluded.”

Yet Silva applauded the Gutierrez bill as a positive step forward.

“All in all, several sections of this bill are very good,” said Isabel Garcia, director of Coalición de Derechos Humanos, an organization that defends civil rights on the U.S.-Mexico border. One of the key positive elements of the bill is that it doesn’t include a “touchback” provision that would force migrants to return to their country of origin before they can apply for legalization, she said.

Still, Garcia said she was concerned about the enforcement aspects of the proposed legislation, such as the employer-sanctions component.

“We need to talk about the elephant in the room and form a commission that really analyzes the reasons why people have to leave their countries of origin,” said Garcia. Among them, she listed the negative impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on agricultural communities in Mexico.

CIR ASAP includes a DREAM Act component, which would provide for the legalization of undocumented youth who have graduated from high school in the U.S. and are pursuing higher education.

Parents like Francisco Tapia were very upbeat about that aspect of the measure. An undocumented immigrant, he has two children, ages 20 and 21, going to college in Arizona, where costs have tripled for undocumented students.

Tapia is planning to join a march organized by the PUENTE Movement on January 16 calling for immigration reform, respect for human rights and the end of state immigration policies.

“Let’s hope the Congress members listen to Gutierrez,” Tapia said.

Most political observers agree that a whole lot more than listening will be needed to pass this bill during an election year.

“When people ask me about the possibility of immigration reform passing in the next year. I ask them: ‘Do you believe in miracles?’” said Alfredo Gutiérrez, former Arizona state senator and the current editor of the Phoenix-based La Frontera Times site.

Immigration reform promises to generate a more divisive debate than health care reform did, Gutiérrez argued.

Some in the opposite side of the political spectrum agree.

“This could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back with this Obama administration and it will test people’s patience,” said Chris Simcox, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in the Republican primaries against Senator John McCain.

Simcox, the former president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a border watch group, said this is the wrong time to push for reform.

“Americans are out of work and you want to ask the forgiveness of those who are illegally in the country and taking their jobs,” he said.

“I’ll be leading the charge to say this is wrong and we’ll go after everyone who dares vote for this when Americans are hurting for a job.”

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