El Paso community leaders on Wednesday announced a united campaign to lobby U.S. lawmakers for immigration reform that is not conditioned on further increases in border security.
"This year will be the year for immigration reform, some thing we have worked on for the past 15 years," said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights. "Something is going to happen, but we don't know what details will be in the reform legislation. It will bring immigrants -- we call them 'undocumented Americans' -- out of the shadows.
"The idea that more enforcement is needed before immigration reform can take place is of great concern to us," Garcia said. "Enough has been done already. El Paso, a border city, is
the safest city in the United States. We have 650 miles of border fencing, 22,000 Border Patrol agents, and we spent $18 billion on enforcement last year alone. What is not being enforced are the civil and human rights of immigrants. They helped to build this nation and deserve better than this."
Besides Garcia, other leaders who spoke about immigration reform at a news conference Wednesday at the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce included U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, city Rep. Susie Byrd, County Judge Veronica Escobar, Chamber of Commerce Chairwoman Kathleen Walker and the Rev. Arturo Banuelas.
O'Rourke said that El Paso has been at the end of bad public policy in the past, and that it's time for the El Paso border
community to make its voice heard in Washington.
"No one has yet defined what 'border security' is," O'Rourke said. "Immigrant communities create the conditions for thriving economies. My job in Congress will be to tell my colleagues in other states that immigration reform is going to be a boon for their communities. I am encouraged by the bipartisan group in the Senate that is working on immigration legislation, but making security a condition is a nonstarter."
O'Rourke said he would like to see more resources used to improve the flow of trade at border ports of entry, which also helps to improve commerce.
The political rhetoric continues to heat up as the White House and Congress throw out different proposals for immigration reform that will affect millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Creating legislation that includes a path to citizenship has been one of the major points that legislators can't seem to agree on.
According to the Center for Migrant Studies in New York, the United States has 11.7 million undocumented immigrants. A quick calculation shows that this is about 3.7 percent of the entire U.S. population of 312.8 million.
The center, which uses the term "unauthorized immigrants," estimates that Texas has 1.6 million undocumented immigrants. That means that undocumented immigrants make up around 6.1 percent of the Lone Star State's entire population of 26 million.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a ranking member on the Senate's Subcommittee On Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, has come out in favor of immigration reform and greater border security.
"Our nation's immigration and border security system is badly broken. It leaves our borders unprotected, threatens our national security and makes a mockery of the rule of law," Cornyn states on his website. "The system has suffered from years of neglect, and in a post-9/11 world, we cannot tolerate this situation any longer.
National security demands a comprehensive solution to our immigration system -- and that means both stronger enforcement and reasonable reform of our immigration laws. We must solve this problem -- and solve it now."
Escobar said a delegation of elected officials and advocates plan to travel to Washington, D.C., on Feb. 27, to hold a news conference and speak to lawmakers.
She said it's important for El Paso to take a lead role in the debate on immigration reform.
"We are not calling for open borders," Escobar said. "We are calling for rational measures for these reforms."
Escobar invited the public to follow the delegation's efforts as it works to push for comprehensive immigration legislation over the next few months.
Walker, who is also a lawyer specializing in immigration law, said that when it comes to enforcement, "Business understands that we need to protect civil and human rights, and praised the contributions of immigrant entrepreneurs and investors.
"We have met the benchmarks for border security e but unless you define what border security is, we can't get there," she said.
The Border Network for Human Rights said research shows that apprehension rates at the U.S.-Mexico border are at 40-year lows and that net migration from Mexico is zero.
Banuelas, a Catholic clergyman and human rights advocate, said: "We will keep fighting for the most vulnerable people of our society. We need to tell the truth about immigrants, about their contributions, and not let fear of others give way to some form of backdoor racism.
"We should not continue to criminalize immigrants who come here to work to feed their families," Banuelas said.
Banuelas also said the U.S. should re-examine its trade policies that create massive displacements in other countries and force migrants to leave their native countries in search of employment.
El Paso's city and county governments have adopted resolutions in support of comprehensive immigration reform.
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