Today the estimated 11 million immigrants who reside in the United States without legal status will watch closely as President Barack Obama follows on the heels of a bipartisan U.S. Senate proposal announced Monday with his own guidelines for approaching immigration reform.
In Nevada, about 250,000 immigrants live on the fringes, working without the proper papers, avoiding government buildings and fearing separation from their families. Observers on all sides await Obama's words, which will be delivered around noon at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, with cautious optimism that something will finally be done to repair an immigration system most everyone agrees is in dire need of repair.
"The devil is in the details," said Las Vegas immigration attorney Peter Ashman. "I think (Obama) will only offer a broad announcement (today), a call to action for Congress. I don't know if the president can talk specifics, the nuts and bolts of a law, but he will talk about what he wants to see happen."
Depending on their position, people close to the debate about immigration reform are focused on different aspects.
Ashman, as an attorney, worries about any new plan that adds too much red tape. For example, he said if there is a continuing process in which employers have to demonstrate that a domestic labor force is unavailable for their needs, the only beneficiaries might be lawyers.
"That sounds like the lawyer full employment act to me," Ashman said. "That's one of the more complicated things you'll ever see."
Ashman said any reform should include a pathway to citizenship, echoing a consensus that has emerged even in the bipartisan Senate group, where Republicans formerly shunned any such proposal as amnesty.
"There has to be a pathway to citizenship," Ashman said. "You can't create a class of people that has the right to be here but will never have the rights or privileges that citizens enjoy. It creates a whole second-class group of citizens in our country and triggers civil rights issues."
The vice president of the Las Vegas Tea Party, Penny Hess, agrees that a pathway to citizenship should be included in the bill but only after other steps are taken first.
"There needs to be a concrete plan for closing our borders before they enact any legislation that would create a pathway to citizenship," Hess said. "Let's not put the cart before the horse. We don't want to encourage more illegal immigrants to come into the country."
Hess supported the Senate proposal of expanding E-Verify, the federal system for checking an applicant's eligibility for work. Additionally, she wants thorough criminal checks for immigrants granted legal residency status. Those allowed to stay should pay a fine and have to wait a certain period of time before applying for permanent residency and citizenship, she said.
"People are going to have to earn it," Hess said. "But maybe there can be something different for children who have been brought here through no fault of their own, because they had nothing to do with it."
The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada launched a campaign this week, Keeping Families Together, which will advocate for immigration reform that halts the record rate of deportations under the Obama administration and sets out a clear process for permanent residency and then citizenship.
"Congress needs to finally fix our patchwork of failed and mismanaged immigration policies so that families have a pathway to citizenship and can stay together," PLAN organizer Laura Martin said.
"It's not enough just to win citizenship, although that is the ultimate goal," Martin said. "We need to expose the system of immigration that we have in this country that tears apart too many strong families, takes children away from their parents, separates wives and husbands, and destroys the family unit."
Leo Murrieta, the Nevada director for civic engagement group Mi Familia Vota and a naturalized citizen, said he had a cousin living in Utah who was deported last year. The issue is personal for many people, he said.
"Mi Familia Vota believes in principles of a pathway to citizenship that is earned; nobody wants a free ride," he said. "We want to fix the system so that it keeps our families together and doesn't send our children and parents to foreign nations they have no ties to. We want to make sure workers are protected; that when they come to this country, they are not locked into a company that can use them and abuse them for their visa status."
Murrieta added that he would like to see provisions in the law for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender partners to be able to petition for residency as a heterosexual married couple would.
Mi Familia Vota helped turn out voters, especially Hispanic ones, to polls in November, and Murrieta said Hispanics in particular expect immigration reform in 2013 and will hold politicians accountable in 2014 elections.
Although Ashman was concerned that a divided, Republican-led House of Representatives may stall immigration reform and force Obama to take executive action, Murrieta seemed more optimistic, pointing to a quote from Sen. Robert Menendez, DľN.J., one of the members of the bipartisan immigration committee.
"First of all, Americans support it in poll after poll," Menendez said on ABC's "This Week." "Secondly, Latino voters expect it. Thirdly, Democrats want it. And fourth, Republicans need it."
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