News Column

US Immigration Plan 'a Good Start' to El Paso Border Security

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Community leaders and advocates in the El Paso border region said Monday that they welcome the news that U.S. lawmakers are working to adopt new immigration legislation aimed at legalizing the status of more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country.

A group of U.S. senators on Monday announced their general framework for bipartisan immigration legislation. President Barack Obama plans to unveil his own proposal today in Nevada.

An estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants lived in the United States in 2011, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported last year, at least half of them in California and Texas.

The Center for Border Farm Workers in El Paso estimates that up to 30 percent of the

5,000 to 14,000 migrant workers in West Texas and Southern New Mexico are undocumented. The higher number is the most usually hired during peak harvest seasons.

U.S. Rep. Robert "Beto" O'Rourke, D-El Paso, said, "I am encouraged that it looks like Congress is finally going to address this issue. It's a good start. I am happy to see that the proposal includes a path to citizenship for 11 million people who are here in an undocumented status. I am also glad to see a fast-track plan for the Dreamers," referring to youths who were brought to the United States by undocumented parents and remain in an immigration limbo.

O'Rourke also said he believes he can use his role on the Homeland Security Committee to help propel sound immigration legislation.

He and Ruben Garcia, executive director of the Annunciation House, which assists at-risk migrants, said they challenge the notion that immigration reform must be conditioned on first assuring that the border is secure.

"I am surprised at the extent that 'securing the border' is still such a big part of the conversation, and that reform is being conditioned on making the border safe," Garcia said. "These legislators need to look at what the U.S. has done in relation to enforcement over the past 10 years. However, I am glad to see that the momentum for immigration reform is building, and I'm very happy that President Obama will speak about this (today)."

In recent years, crime statistics compiled each year by the FBI indicate that overall crime is down in U.S. cities along the border with Mexico. El Paso continues to be ranked among the safest cities for its size in the United States, despite its proximity to Juarez, Chihuahua, which experienced extraordinary levels of violence during the drug cartel wars of 2008-2012.

Eight Republican and Democrat U.S. senators released a copy of their general framework for immigration reform that includes these goals:

-- Creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, contingent upon securing the border and better tracking of people who are here on visas.

-- Reforming the legal immigration system, including awarding green cards to immigrants who obtain advanced degrees in science, math, technology or engineering from a U.S. university.

-- Creating an effective employment verification system to ensure that employers do not hire undocumented immigrants.

-- Allowing more low-skill workers into the country, and allowing employers to hire immigrants if they can demonstrate they were unable to recruit a U.S. citizen for the work; and establishing an agricultural worker program.

The senators who are expected to support these guiding principles for immigration reform are Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado. The Republicans involved in the legislation are John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

"While there are still many details to be worked out, I recognize that in order to address the many facets of immigration reform, it's going to take a bipartisan commitment. Yes, 'the devil's in the details,' and not everyone is going to like everything, but sitting idly by is not a responsible approach," Flake said in a statement that covered details of the senators' proposal.

"I have always insisted that any reform plan not include a blanket amnesty and these principles reflect that. I'm also particularly pleased that there is bipartisan support to include the input of border communities," Flake said. "Not only will security be strengthened according to Washington, D.C,. but border communities will have a say as well."

Under the senators' proposal, the undocumented immigrants would have to pass background checks and pay fines and taxes in order to qualify for a probationary legal status that would allow them to live and work here. And they could not qualify for federal benefits, including health care, before being able to apply for permanent residency, the step toward citizenship.

Once they are allowed to apply, they would be allowed to do so only behind everyone else who is already in line for a green card within the current immigration system.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said "I am very encouraged by the bipartisan framework that has been unveiled in the Senate to modernize our broken immigration system. Reform is long overdue. The proposal contains the elements necessary to overhaul the system, including securing our borders, a roadmap to earned citizenship and employment verification to hold employers accountable.

"I'm also pleased that it would provide further certainty for DREAMers and recognizes the importance of workforce stability within the agriculture industry. As a border state, this is good news for New Mexico," Udall said in a statement. "I look forward to reviewing the details of this legislation as it takes form and working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to give this issue the attention it deserves."

Besides politicians and advocates, religious leaders across the United States had called on Congress to adopt immigration reform.

In a statement, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said, "The senators have introduced principles for a bill that has a true chance of passing. I think they sense this is a real opportunity. Not only should we be encouraged but we should understand that this is truly what St. Paul would call a 'kairos,' or propitious, moment to be seized. The momentum needs to be used to pass significant and helpful immigration reform."

Carlos Marentes, director of the Border Farm Workers Center, which assists migrant agricultural workers in the region, and Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, a coalition of advocacy organizations, said they are glad to see U.S. lawmakers embark on immigration reform, but are troubled by some aspects of the senators' proposal.

"The Border Network recognizes this as a first and very important step to address the core issue of immigration reform, which is providing a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people living and working in the U.S.," said Garcia, who's unrelated to Ruben Garcia of the Annunciation House. "But we cannot ignore the problems within these principles. We are deeply concerned and disappointed that the senators would connect the much-needed legalization program to new border enforcement triggers and further militarization of our southern border."

The bipartisan proposal, Garcia said, calls for the deployment of more drones (unmanned aerial vehicles), more Border Patrol agents, more infrastructure and military technology, and for national, mandatory E-Verify, which would be very close to a national ID.

Marentes said he is concerned about the U.S. government might come up with a new "bracero-type" program for migrant farm workers that will permit employers to exploit them at will.

"We don't know what safeguards will be extended from this legislation to farmworkers," Marentes said.

"The new legislation, as proposed, is very different from the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. I just can't see how you can end up with a just and humane law as long as immigration reform is being linked to the issue of national security."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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