As a group of senators nears closer to announcing a bipartisan immigration reform bill, Walla Walla residents rallied Wednesday to express their support for family-focused reform measures.
About 40 people gathered at Walla Faces on Main Street to hear personal stories about how locals have been affected by immigration policy. The event was organized by OneAmerica, an immigrant rights organization based in Seattle, as well as the Service Employees International Union, which represents domestic workers, janitors and other service employees.
Organizers said their goal was to remind people about the ways existing immigration policies have hurt families.
“Rather than the issue of, ‘How many work visas do we authorize?’ and the more technical aspects of [immigration reform], there are human aspects to it,” said SEIU organizer Louis Gonzales.
The Senate’s reform plan has yet to be released yet, but draft versions require tougher border security to be in place before citizenship would be granted to immigrants now living in the U.S. illegally. The plan would grant the Department of Homeland Security $3.5 billion to develop a five-year border security plan. Once that plan is in place, immigrants would be able to apply for provisional status, though the wait for legal citizenship would be at least a decade long.
At the rally, one woman, Beatriz, who declined to give her last name because she is not authorized to live in the U.S., explained how her family was split because of her husband’s illness. She came to the U.S. illegally with her husband to do farm work about 10 years ago. Her husband was injured on the job, and at the hospital he learned he had lung cancer. Because he wasn’t authorized to be in the country and didn’t have health insurance, the hospital refused to treat him. He returned to Mexico to seek treatment, leaving Beatriz in Walla Walla with the family’s children.
“I am working, but always with the fear that they could check my documents and take away my job,” she said. “The only thing I need is for immigration reform to pass. That would be a big help for me and my family.”
Federico Diaz, an organizer for Commitment to Community, said immigration policy separated his family, too. He came to the U.S. in 1990 and eventually became a citizen after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. His wife, whom he married in 2006, came to the U.S. illegally from Venezuela and eventually had to return home to try to get a visa which would grant her legal status.
Diaz said he was separated from his wife and child for 15 months while they tried to sort out the paperwork. He said the process is long and complicated, even for people with no criminal background who should be able to come to the U.S. easily.
“This process separates families. You don’t usually see that in the news,” he said.
Nationally, similar rallies and gatherings were held across the country, and thousands of people marched in Washington D.C. to show support for reform measures.
At the Walla Walla rally, OneAmerica organizer Maha Jahshan said that for the first time in U.S. history, polls show a majority of people support immigration reform measures. She attributed this to the large role Latinos played in the 2012 elections.
“The framing has changed,” she said.
Groups opposed to immigration reform also have been making their voices heard as the bipartisan Senate group gets closer to releasing a bill. NumbersUSA, a national organization that wants lower immigration numbers, has said reform measures would be too expensive. And some Senate Republicans have similar concerns about costs of granting citizenship to immigrants, making them eligible for entitlement programs like Social Security.
Despite the opposition, it seems likely that a reform measure of some kind will pass this year. President Obama has identified immigration reform as a top priority, and many Republicans and Democrats are in agreement that legislation is needed now.
Jahshan said that with reform looking likely, it’s important to remember the hard work of activists who pushed for changes in policy.
“We also want to remember that this process was not easy. We want to remember the thousands of families torn apart, the people who have died crossing the border, the good students who were deported without any criminal record,” she said. “We want to remember the people who have suffered to get here.”