ELKHART — Time after time, the nation’s leaders in Washington D.C. have discussed immigration reform and vowed to act, only to end up falling short. Way short.
“They’ve promised ... but done nothing,” said Jovanhy Arreola, an immigrant originally from Mexico now living in Elkhart and working as a short-order cook at Mexican eatery here.
Talk of a grand reform measure is surging again and the tone of out the nation’s capital suggests action may finally be afoot to deal with the thorny issue. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators on Monday revealed details of a rough blueprint for reform, according to the Associated Press, and it includes, among other things, a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s undocumented immigrants, numbering around 11 million.
Still, while there’s plenty of excitement, there’s also skepticism. There’s a realization among immigrants here who would potentially be impacted — people like Arreola — that reform, at this stage, is far from a done deal.
“I hope they fix the law because there are many families that need this,” said Laura Macias, sacking groceries at an Elkhart market that caters to Hispanics, draws some undocumented immigrants.
At the same time, she points to the bitter debate that led to narrow approval by federal lawmakers of the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform measure also known as Obamacare. The fight over immigration reform, she suspects, could be twice as intense as that.
“It’s uncertain. No one wants to believe a pipe dream ... because we know it’s a long fight (lawmakers) have,” she said.
Perhaps surprisingly, an anti-illegal immigrant critic in Elkhart County voiced a measure of support for the efforts in Washington D.C. Bob Schrameyer, head of Citizens for Immigration Law Enforcement, or CILE, seems to be open to the measures lawmakers are discussing, even the possibility of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, typically one of the stickiest points in the debate.
CILE, an Elkhart County group, calls for stricter enforcement of existing immigration laws and has railed with particular zeal against companies here that hire undocumented immigrants.
“I think there probably should be a pathway to citizenship,” Schrameyer said. “I guess let’s get realistic about it. Nobody’s going to round them up, put them on the bus (back to their home countries). Let’s pull them out of the shadows, register them.”
On the flip side, an immigrant advocate, Rocio Arevalo of LaCasa of Goshen, cautioned against reading too much into the preliminary reports of a reform plan. “There are always people who get super excited about the possibility of something changing,” she said.
Undocumented immigrants should stay informed, watch the news, talk to an attorney, but be leery of shysters who would make impossible promises about legalizing their status. Reform talks could take week, or months, said Arevalo, director of client services at LaCasa. Even if some sort of deal is reached, any new procedures for undocumented immigrants would require an application process that would likely take time.
“We advise caution,” she said. “As of this point, there is nothing that is law.”
Elkhart County has a sizable Hispanic population, mainly Mexican-Americans and Mexicans, and within the group, a pocket of undocumented immigrants, though the precise number remains uncertain.
As is, they keep in the shadows, live with uncertainty — will I be deported? Will that policeman pull me over, discover I don’t have a driver’s license and arrest me? Accordingly, if lawmakers were to create a mechanism letting undocumented immigrants attain legal status, full U.S. citizenship, that would be the answer to many of their dreams.
“Many have waited for it for a long time,” said Ana Nava, sorting the shelves at the Hispanic market here where she works.
The 2007 Jimtown High School grad, originally from Mexico, has applied for deferred action, a federal mechanism younger undocumented immigrants may tap to remain here legally. But that route doesn’t lead to citizenship and isn’t available to an older sister, a Salvadoran friend or many others.
Janet Lara, a manager at one of the other Elkhart supermarkets catering to Hispanics, notices that many — presumably undocumented immigrants — will come to the store in groups, sharing a ride with someone who has a driver’s license.
“Everybody’s nervous,” she said. “Everybody around here carpools because they don’t have a license.”
Indeed, ask around and immigrants skirt around talk about their migratory status. Instead, they focus on their hopes, their desire to work, support their families.
“The only thing we ask for is to work,” said Jose, a butcher at a market who declined to give his last name. “We didn’t come to cause problems. We came to work.”
The current pool of immigrants, Lara thinks, came to the United States just as many have for decades and decades.
“People come here for the American dream,” she said. “But it’s hard. It’s difficult.”