ELKHART — The time is ripe for immigration reform — including a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants — and if it doesn’t happen now, prospects for change anytime soon may fade.
That was the message at a gathering Thursday, Aug. 22, of a coalition pushing for reform, an ongoing point of debate in Congress.
“The fact is, this is a real opportunity,” said Fred Everett, director of the office of family life at the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. “What a shame it would be if we don’t take that step forward.”
The U.S. Senate has crafted a comprehensive immigration reform plan, but the U.S. House has yet to act and prospects are sketchier in that body. With that in mind, Everett and reps from several other groups pushing for reform gathered at the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce to prod the effort along.
There were calls for U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, the local representative in Congress, to take a role in moves to craft a reform plan in the U.S. House and calls for the public to get in touch with their lawmakers.
“I invite you to act, to do something,” said Angela Adams, an Indianapolis-based immigration attorney who helped organize Thursday’s meeting. “Make a call to your local congressperson, send a letter, write an email.”
Aside from Everett and Adams, those speaking out included Elkhart chamber President Kyle Hannon, Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill and Randy Johnson, a vice president from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Representatives from Walorski’s office were also at the meeting, though they didn’t publicly address the group.
Johnson, a veteran of efforts to craft immigration reform in 2001 and 2005-06, offered 50-50 prospects on a final plan emerging in Congress.
“Who knows what’s going to be done in the House,” said Johnson. The degree of opposition to reform moves, however, “is much less than it was years ago.”
Hannon just hopes the House comes up with some sort of reform measure, leading to a conference committee with Senate reps on their plan and, ideally, compromise legislation.
Walorski, though not present, issued a statement in response to the meeting, sponsored by a group dubbed the Bibles, Badges and Business for Immigration Reform network, an initiative of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based immigrant advocacy group.
The U.S. immigration system is “broken,” said Walorski, a Republican, and “fairness and careful consideration” must be given to the situation.
“I encourage the House to focus on designing a workable system to address critical issues like border security and a visa entry-exit system, tracking individuals entering and leaving the U.S. on temporary visas for improved national security,” Walorski said.
She didn’t touch on the notion of a pathway to citizenship or some sort of legal status for undocumented immigrants. That was a central call among representatives at Thursday’s meeting and it’s one of the sticky points in the debate.
The Elkhart and U.S. chambers also say any reform plan should improve border security, enhance U.S. visa programs geared to high- and low-skilled workers and upgrade the federal employment verification system, called E-Verify.
‘MORE HUMANE PERSPECTIVE’
Hill, the Elkhart County prosecutor, alluded to the start of the influx of Latino immigrants into Elkhart County in the 1990s. At times he felt “uncomfortable,” he said, but his view has evolved, in part due to contact with the Hispanic and immigrant communities in school activities involving his children.
“We have to look at it from a more humane perspective,” he said. As prosecutor, he continued, “I found some bad ones. But I can tell you the bad ones were a very, very, very tiny percentage.”
By relying at times on false documents, lying on forms because of their migratory status, undocumented immigrants “start down a path of illegal or improper activity,” Hill said. Nonetheless, the notion of rounding up the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country and deporting them, favored by some, isn’t realistic, as he sees it.
“We can’t have an intelligent discussion about immigration reform until we put that aside,” said Hill, a Republican. Undocumented immigrants, he later continued, are “not going anywhere, so the next question is, what do you want to do with them?”
Everett said the act of crossing the U.S. border without proper papers doesn’t make undocumented immigrants felons. “Consequently, we shouldn’t be treating these people as criminals,” he said.
REACHING ‘DISSENTING’ VOICES
Lacking from Thursday’s gathering were vocal representatives of sectors less open to creating a pathway to citizenship or legalization for undocumented immigrants. The reform proposal from the Democrat-led Senate contains provisions addressing the matter, but the GOP-led House has been more reluctant on the matter.
Saulo Padilla, an attendee Thursday who works with immigrants as part of his duties with the Mennonite Central Committee in Goshen, noted the absence after the meeting, saying such sectors should be included in events like Thursday’s gathering. “How do we reach those voices who are still dissenting so we can have a real conversation?” he said.