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Here to work

"Here to work" Continued...

Issue: "Coming to America," April 6, 2013

Obama made no mention of a guest worker program when unveiling his plan in January, focusing instead on an eight-year path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and more enforcement measures—neither of which will fundamentally change the way immigration works in the future. But in a March 8 meeting at the White House with 14 faith leaders, including Samuel Rodriguez, Obama expressed an eagerness to address future flow issues, though he wants to strengthen the current visa system instead of creating a new one.

In Congress the “Gang of Eight,” a group of bipartisan senators, released a framework for immigration reform, but Republicans like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio first want the borders secure. The problem, critics say, is how to define border security when illegal immigration is already down sharply, deportations are at record highs, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has an $11.84 billion budget.

ICE has most of its 20,000 agents on the southern border, and it placed nearly 1 million “detainers”—holds issued to local law enforcement—on suspected non-citizens between 2008 and 2012, according to the Transactional Records Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Of those, more than three-fourths had no criminal record, only 8.6 percent had committed “serious” crimes (traffic violations were included), and more than 28,000 were legal U.S. residents.

That’s inefficiency at its best, says Mark Shurtleff, Utah Attorney General from 2001 to January 2013. “You simply can’t hold them all,” he told me, adding that after consulting with local law enforcement agencies, ICE recently enacted a new policy to detain only criminals. Shurtleff said most local law enforcement resists harsh policies because illegal immigrants are “the first line of defense, and they’re very cooperative with law enforcement.” He said 90 percent of all confidential informants are undocumented, with only a “small percentage” of them criminals, so harsh state laws meant to drive out immigrants “hurt public safety.”

It’s still unclear how far the Senate plan would go to overhaul the legal system of entry, but a bipartisan group of House members, led by Tea Party favorite Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, is squarely focused on comprehensive reform that would address the future flow of immigrants.

The idea of a guest worker program has worked before: Illegal immigration declined sharply in the 1950s when the Bracero visa program—a robust guest worker program—funneled hundreds of thousands of immigrants into a legal system. But details make all the difference, and special interest groups like organized labor or homosexual activists, who want to include same-sex partners in family reunification policies, could unravel the entire reform effort.

The situation is a win-win for Obama, who received 71 percent of the Hispanic vote last November and will likely take credit for a sweeping political victory if immigration reform passes. Some polling suggests immigration reform may not help Republicans with Hispanics, who tend to favor larger government, but Texas immigrants told me their support for Democrats is a direct result of immigration policy. “Republicans don’t leave us any choice,” said Balbina Andrade, who is active at Alvin Seventh Day Adventist Church and voted for the first time in 2012.

For Mario Hernandez, politics are the furthest thing from his mind: His daughter, already underweight for her age, is not eating enough, and evenings bring tears of loneliness without her mother and sisters. “I’m trying to take good care of my baby,” he said.

Hernandez and his two other daughters, Dhamar, 9, and Leslie, 7, have been tested to see if they are potential matches for Fatima, but results won’t be known until the end of March. In the meantime, Hernandez and his American friends are petitioning area congressmen and even Texas Gov. Rick Perry to get him protection: “I’m trying to become legal.”

J.C. Derrick
J.C. Derrick

J.C. is a reporter in WORLD's Washington Bureau. He spent 10 years covering sports, higher education, and politics for the Longview News-Journal and other newspapers in Texas before joining WORLD in 2012. Follow J.C. on Twitter @jcderrick1.

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