Florida labor and religious groups push for immigration reform

06/04/13 Janelle Irwin
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Activists in favor of an immigration reform bill in the U.S. Senate are hoping it gets approved before the Senate breaks at the end of this month. During a phone conference Tuesday, several groups said they are optimistic the measure will be spared any harmful amendments before it’s voted on.

The call was hosted by the labor group, AFL-CIO. David Fernandez is with the Florida chapter.

“With over 70% of Florida voters saying that they support a tough, but fair road map to citizenship, the time is now more than ever to pass a comprehensive immigration reform package that protects all workers and provides a pathway to citizenship.”

The immigration package was introduced by a bi-partisan group of eight U.S. Senators including Florida’s Marco Rubio. It includes a 13-year-long pathway to citizenship that would require undocumented immigrants to pay fines and back taxes. Even though some groups criticize the measure for containing too much red tape, it’s still welcomed by many immigrants, including Tirso Moreno with the Farmworker Association of Florida.

“The possibility for farm workers to be here for three years and be able to not be assigned to one employer, but to change employers and also the possibility to bring their families and to be able to become permanent residents. We hope that that will stay in there and that we can keep the bill as it is right now and not make it worse.”

The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. Andrea DiBitetto is a legislative representative for the AFL-CIO in Washington D.C. She said the immigration reform package was spared any major changes.

“A number of the key principals in this bill remained in tact. The road to citizenship is still there and it did not get damaged during the committee process. It was great to see during the committee, the Republicans in the Gang of Eight – particularly [Lindsey] Graham (R-SC) and [Jeff] Flake (R-AZ) – they stood with the bill, voted to oppose really bad amendments and voted to maintain the integrity of their bill.”

Many of those really bad amendments were proposed by conservative Republicans who are hesitant to support immigration reform without including stronger border security.

“We saw examples of amendments, for example Senator [Ted] Cruz (R-TX) wanted to triple the border patrol agents, quadruple the number of drones on the committee. Senator [John] Cornyn (R-TX) wanted to do a bunch of border amendments. Senator [Jeff] Sessions (R-AL) had amendments to deal with the border and an entry and exit system. A lot of those amendments were successfully defeated.”

The measure needs 60 votes to clear the Senate and avoid a possible filibuster, but the so-called Gang of Eight is hoping to get more than that. That’s because the measure faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled House. Supporters are fearful the bill may undergo a major facelift once it hits the Senate floor.

“Senator [Orrin] Hatch (R-UT) in particular has already outlined amendments that he’s going to be offering. He’s going to be looking for amendments to bar immigrants from Welfare, barring them from healthcare and making sure they can’t get credit for some of their past social security contributions in back taxes.”

The bill is currently in its mark-up period where Senators are able to make changes to language and propose additions and deletions. The legislation also contains what supporters are saying is the best version of the DREAM Act lawmakers have seen. Under the immigration bill, undocumented immigrants would spend 13 years traveling the pathway to citizenship, but so-called dreamers would only have to wait 5 years. To qualify a person would have to have entered the U.S. before the age of 16 and have been here since the end of 2011. Gaby Pacheco is the director of a group called the Bridge Project that exposes lies in the conservative movement. She said some of the amendments proposed so far have been positive ones.

“One of them was Senator [Mazie] Hirono’s (D-HI) amendment that says that dreamers will have the ability to get college loans and work studies and so this is part of financial aid and it’s something that is really necessary for the immigrant communities that tend to be – don’t really have access to a lot of money.”

The bill’s DREAM Act provision also removes the age cap on individuals who qualify. The immigration reform package is being supported by some religious groups. Sister Simone Campbell is a spokesperson for the group Nuns on the Bus that’s traveling the country in support of immigration reform.

“One of the things we’ve been saying on the bus is that our constitution is not, ‘we the citizens’, it’s not ‘we the ones who got here first’. No, it says ‘we the people’. Our nation is the best when all of us can come together and help solve the problems that we face.”

Activists following the measure through the halls of Washington expect it to be debated on the full Senate floor next week through the end of the month. They are hoping for a vote in favor of the bill by June 28.

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