Immigration reform would be transformative for Latinos

Feature Immigration Reform Panel

Long before inauguration day, President Biden announced plans to roll back many of Donald Trump’s immigration policies, and he’s whittled away at them through executive order. However, the big one — comprehensive immigration reform — is still collecting dust in Congress even though its advocates believe it would be transformative for Latino Americans.

Shortly after taking the oath of office, Biden unveiled his own immigration plan, the U.S. Citizenship Act, that calls for an eight-year path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. without legal status. While this bill is not considered to be as comprehensive as past reform measures, it features a faster pathway to citizenship.

Under the proposal, those living without legal status in the U.S. as of Jan. 1, 2021, would have a five-year path to temporary legal status, or a green card, if they pass background checks, pay taxes, and meet other requirements. At that point, they would have a three-year path to naturalization should they choose to pursue it.

The path would be even smoother for some, including young people under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program who were brought here by their parents, plus agricultural workers and other people under temporary protective status. People in these categories could qualify more immediately for green cards if they are working or attending school.

Karen Menendez Coller, executive director of Centro Hispano of Dane County, the leading social service provider for Latinos in Greater Madison, says it would be a dream come true for Latino immigrants if Congress were to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the president was to sign it, and they would finally have a path to citizenship.

“It would be something that we’ve all been wanting for many, many years,” Menendez Coller states. “One thing to note is the work we do at Centro is very, very personal. Over 95% of my staff, myself included, are from the [Latino] community with the lived experiences that people are talking about, so we know firsthand what the impact could mean when you have a pathway to citizenship.

“I think something that sometimes gets lost is that when people come to this country, it’s a huge decision to make, and it’s not one that’s taken lightly,” Menendez Coller adds. “People come to this country so that you can become a citizen, contribute, do everything that you need to, and so not only is it an economic gain for the country when you have 10, 11 million citizens who are on the pathway to citizenship, but it’s also an economic gain for the present and the future.”

Centro Hispano of Dane County, established in 1983, now serves roughly 7,000 individuals a year, which equates to about 3,000 families. Its services largely are provided to a young demographic whose average age is 25–28 years, but it also focuses on their families because “the future can’t be stable if families aren’t stabilized,” Menendez Coller states. Centro Hispano also provides leadership development and community engagement programming to this young demographic. “This is going to be the future of the country, if you look at the Census numbers right now, and it’s significant,” she explains. “So, there is an economic gain [with immigration reform], and there is also a gain for us as a society, but it also brings a stability and a sense of belonging to people who have been feeling left out of the vision of this country that we call our home. So, that’s a huge thing.”

Beyond reconciliation
The immigration stalemate is likely to continue for a while after Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, the arbiter of U.S. Senate procedural rules, ruled that Democrats’ plan to provide a pathway to citizenship couldn’t be included in a massive $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill now under consideration in Congress. MacDonough ruled that having a plan to legalize a group that includes young immigrants, farmworkers, and various essential workers in the spending bill didn’t comply with Senate rules. Unless Congressional leaders plan to defy MacDonough, keep the pathway in the bill, pass the bill, and take their chances with a court challenge, the pathway provision will have to be considered in separate legislation. 

Once Congress gets past the current debate and consideration of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and the reconciliation bill, which could happen this week, Menendez Coller wants comprehensive immigration reform to get some long overdue attention. The last time prospects for a comprehensive solution were this good, reform advocates — mostly Democrats — had much larger margins in Congress, but Congressional leaders decided instead to focus on passage of the Affordable Care Act.

Democrats have much smaller margins now — an eight-vote margin in the House of Representatives (220–212 with three vacant) and a 50–50 tie in the U.S. Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris poised to cast the tie-breaking vote — but given the size of the infrastructure and reconciliation bills, they appear to be willing to pursue major legislative goals with smaller vote margins.

Menendez Coller, for one, certainly hopes so. “I think we’re all, in the [Latino] community, a little bit nervous because of the Senate’s parliamentarian and the procedural question about whether this should be included in the reconciliation bill,” she notes. “If this doesn’t pass in the reconciliation bill, it is a long road, in my opinion, to try to get something passed sooner rather than later.

“So, it’s troubling. It provides a lot of stress for our community, but I think we’re hopeful that everybody will stand their ground and that there will be a bill that is inclusive of the workforce, their striving, and the economic development of this country, and that it can really be the starting point for everything that happens after that. It’s a really critical time and for me, from the business sector, it’s important for everybody to really understand how important this time is because if this doesn’t happen, it limits the opportunity to get moving.”

Menendez Coller isn’t the only person keeping her fingers crossed. Madison businessmen Daniel Guerra, CEO of SDM Analytics, and Rogelio Carranza, associate project manager at PPD in Middleton, tout the economic benefits of immigration reform, especially with the labor shortage faced by business operators. Both men serve on the board of the Latino Professionals Association, whose mission is to elevate and connect Latino professionals.

“I don’t think anyone is saying that it [the path to citizenship] should just be a blanket ‘everybody is legalized,’” Guerra states. “What we’re seeing today with the inflationary costs in restaurants — yes, products cost more, but we need workers. There are fewer people having children today, and so immigration is a path to having more folks working. More folks working means healthier economies. It means more tax revenue. It means more investment in public education. Everybody wins.”

Carranza believes immigration reform would bring peace of mind. “For me, the DACAs are doing so much good for the community, and to have them looking over and saying, ‘Did I miss my renewal date? My forms are still being processed and my DACA will expire next month or in the next two months,’ and knowing these are kids,” he says, shaking his head. “They are still kids.”

There are also young professionals among them, Carranza adds, and their potential is enormous. “These kids are trying to do something good for their community, for their town, for their state, and they have that fear and extra pressure on top of them too … It is tough to see people who have had to go through so many hurdles just to do what me or Dan [Guerra] would do normally.

“We wouldn’t even second guess it, so yes, to me it’s a topic that I’m passionate about just because I know too many people who are in that position that are only doing good things, and knowing if they were in my spot, they might be doing two or three times the things that I’m doing, and I have no hurdles. It’s that mindset that if you give them the resources, the sky is the limit.”

Related story: Serving diversity: Latino Professionals Association

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