Local area keeps eye on immigration reform

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As politicians in Washington, D.C., begin outlining an immigration reform proposal, communities across Eastern Washington are considering how the plan will impact them.

“We desperately need immigration reform,” said Wendy Hernandez, an immigration lawyer in Walla Walla.

Hernandez said an immigration reform bill would drive economic activity by allowing immigrants to do things like buy houses and seek work without being afraid of deportation.

“The problem becomes the details,” she said.

A bipartisan group of senators has outlined a framework for immigration reform with four basic pillars: making a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, creating an employer verification system, reforms to legal immigration laws and providing a better way for workers to come to the U.S.

President Obama outlined a similar vision in a speech in Las Vegas last week.

Both plans require the U.S.-Mexico border to be secured before undocumented immigrants can earn legal status, a provision some say has not been clearly defined. Since 2006, the number of federal Border Patrol agents has doubled, and last year, the Obama administration spent more on border enforcement than on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, according to a Migration Policy Institute study.

“As long as some person slips through, I guess we can say the borders are not secure,” said Hernandez, who expressed concern that pursuing security before legalization would leave many undocumented immigrants in limbo.

Greg Cunningham, the director of Catholic Charities Spokane, said he is concerned about the border security requirement as well. In addition, he said the proposal that undocumented immigrants “wait in line” behind applicants for legal immigration could delay processing for many.

For instance, to be granted a visa this week for having a close family member in the U.S., a Mexican citizen would have had to apply for the visa in 1992, Hernandez said.

“If they don’t clear visa backlogs and define what it means to secure the border, it could be years before they get their visas,” Cunningham said.

Hernandez agreed, and also noted many undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. have filed legal visa petitions. Processing the backlog in applications could serve to legalize many undocumented immigrants who are already in the country.

Any immigration reform measure will likely include provisions to legalize many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. While exact numbers are nearly impossible to come by, Walla Walla, like most cities in Eastern Washington, is home to a significant number of undocumented immigrants, many of whom work in agriculture.

“Agricultural workers represent a unique challenge to the immigration question,” said Roger Bairstow, a managing board member for Broetje Orchards in Prescott.

According to a 2008 study from the Pew Hispanic Research Center, about 25 percent of agricultural workers are undocumented immigrants. However, this figure does not include temporary workers, so the actual number is likely higher.

The bipartisan Senate plan would give agricultural workers, as well as immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors, a fast-track to permanent residency and eventual citizenship.

Bairstow said this provision reflected the important role agricultural workers play in the economy. He noted that, like many companies, Broetje Orchards has had trouble recruiting non-Latino and non-immigrant workers for agricultural jobs.

The requirements to earn permanent residency and citizenship would include learning English and paying a fine, as well as any back taxes owed.

Hernandez anticipated that back taxes would not be a large issue for many undocumented immigrants. She said almost all of the immigrants she’s worked with have paid taxes, whether they are in the U.S. legally or not.

Mariela Rosas, who coordinates educational programs at the Walla Walla Farm Labor Homes, said the undocumented immigrants she works with are excited for the opportunity to become legal residents. She also raised concerns about some of the proposed requirements.

In particular, she said many farm laborers she works with are barely literate in Spanish, and would struggle to learn English well enough to pass a citizenship test.

“I hope they make it a little bit easier and consider the age of some of these undocumented people,” she said, noting that it’s difficult for senior citizens to learn an entirely new language.

Still, Rosas emphasized that undocumented workers were thrilled that any kind of legislation was being considered.

“I hope this will be the big step for people to feel free in the land of the free,” she said.

Bairstow echoed her excitement, adding that it’s important to include undocumented immigrants in the policymaking process.

“Our biggest concern is that this is not just a conversation that happens in D.C. without involving Latinos, especially those who are undocumented,” he said. “It’s a wonderful thing that we’re seeing some momentum that I hope truly translates into action and results.”

Rachel Alexander can be reached at rachelalexander@wwub.com or 526-8363.

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