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Immigration Overhaul 'Feels Unstoppable Now,' Backers Say

Protesters march last week in Miami, in support of immigration overhaul legislation. The marchers were calling for a new immigration system with a path to citizenship for 11 million people currently in the country illegally.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Protesters march last week in Miami, in support of immigration overhaul legislation. The marchers were calling for a new immigration system with a path to citizenship for 11 million people currently in the country illegally.

Thousands of supporters will descend on the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to call for legislation that creates a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.

Sound familiar?

But this time, unlike in 2007 and 2010 when immigration legislation died in Congress after similar demonstrations, proponents of an overhaul say politics has swung inexorably toward their side.

"I've been working on this issue for more than a decade, and it feels unstoppable now," says Ana Avendano, director of immigration and community action at the AFL-CIO.

Momentum, however, has met Congress, where bipartisan "gangs" in the Senate and the House have been wrestling with writing comprehensive overhaul legislation — with some success, and a few setbacks.

The long-awaited bill from the Senate's Gang of Eight, which includes Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, is now expected to be released next week at the earliest.

Senators and lobbyists continue to haggle over two of the stickiest remaining issues: rules governing visas for foreign agricultural workers; and border security thresholds Republicans like Rubio want met before citizenship paths are opened.

Rubio spokesman Alex Conant says that the senator, seen as key to a legislative deal, is not commenting on the thresholds or "triggers," or any other part of the bill while senators are negotiating.

Republican opponents of citizenship options are wary of the implications of getting behind anything that smacks of amnesty, and the border controls are seen as one element of mitigating political fallout.

But it appears that a consensus has developed among advocates for a comprehensive overhaul that a path to citizenship should trump every other legislative consideration.

Says Gustavo Torres, a Maryland-based activist and one of the rally organizers: "What we really want is legislation now. We want a path to citizenship."

The Senate gang has been considering a 13-year path to citizenship, and perhaps considerably shorter for farm workers here illegally, as well as a system that could levy fines and assess back taxes on those seeking permanent status.

"The path to citizenship is the prime directive of the civil rights community," Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said this week.

Trip Wires

The AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have worked out a deal on one potentially polarizing element of the effort.

A new program will allow, over five years, up to 200,000 low-skilled foreign workers to receive visas to work at jobs gone unfilled by Americans.

In its first year, the deal would allow about 20,000 workers in any industry to receive visas, says Avendano of the AFL-CIO. There would be a limit on the number allotted to construction companies.

"The agreement with the chamber is solid," she says. "It has broad support across the country."

In a statement, Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas Donohue called the worker program "just one important component of comprehensive immigration reform," and said border security, a pathway to citizenship "under tight criteria" and an employment verification system also needed to be part of a solution.

What remains unresolved is how a new temporary, seasonal guest worker visa program would play out in the agricultural industry.

There, negotiators representing the growers and the laborers remain at loggerheads over the number of visas and minimum wage requirements under any new program.

Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director at the United Farm Workers Foundation, declined to disclose specifics of confidential negotiations underway.

But she characterized current industry proposals as potentially harmful to the wages and working conditions of agricultural workers here legally.

"We want to make sure that those who are already here are not affected adversely," Tellefson Torres says.

Legal farmworkers earn an average hourly wage of $10.80, Tellefson Torres says, and of the 1.6 million farm workers in the U.S., an estimated 1 million are here illegally.

Those familiar with the negotiations say that agribusiness has advocated a program that would begin with the authorization of 200,000 guest worker visas, know as H-2A visas, and raise or eliminate the cap going forward.

The current H-2A program since 2005 has set a cap of 85,000 visas for seasonal farm workers.

But the debate over agricultural guest worker visas may remain unresolved as the legislation moves forward, first to the Senate Judiciary Committee where Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has promised a full airing.

"A specific agricultural program would be good, but it's not essential," Tellefson Torres says. "Our first priority is to ensure that farmworkers that are here are able to get on the path to citizenship."

The Coalition

Immigration overhaul advocates have worked to expand their reach and diversify the face of immigrants to beyond the Hispanic community.

In a conference by rally organizers this week, Gustavo Torres of Casa de Maryland, a Latino and immigrant advocacy organization, was joined not only by union officials, but also by representatives of the LGBT community and those advocating for Filipino immigrants.

The Migration Policy Institute in a 2009 study estimated that the number of unauthorized immigrants from the Philippines had increased about 33 percent since 2000. Filipinos, however, make up just 2 percent of immigrants here illegally.

Gay and lesbian activists like Rachel Tiven have characterized the immigration issue as a "shared struggle among the overlapping LGBT and immigrant communities."

Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, which provides legal services to those in the LGBT community affected by U.S. immigration law, says that the gay community's recent civil rights successes should be seen as a model.

"We play to win," Tiven said this week. "We want the right to get in line, and when we get in, we want to make sure it's a line that's going to move."

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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