Immigration reform could change the lives of up to 95,000 in Minnesota

President Obama and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators want to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws with a path to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented people, a proposal that could change the lives of up to 95,000 immigrants in Minnesota.

Speaking before a roof-raising-cheering crowd in Las Vegas Tuesday, Obama called for “commonsense, comprehensive, immigration reform,” saying, by my count, five times: “Now is the time.”

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Is it?

“Absolutely,’’ says John Keller, an attorney and executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, a state where the numbers of the undocumented vary from an estimated 55,000 to 95,000.

“The planets are aligning,” adds Keller, referring to both the high cost of federal immigration enforcement and the growing bipartisan push for immigration reform since the 2012 election.

A group of eight senators – Republicans and Democrats – on Monday unveiled a framework for what they call a “tough but fair path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants – the latest in a number of plans that have been floated over the years. In 2007 a Senate reform bill died despite backing from President George W. Bush for want of enough bipartisan support. In 2010, discussions began but crashed and burned. Why is this year different?

Keller points to a new study by the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank, which shows the U.S. government lays out “more on federal immigration enforcement than on all other principal federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined,” nearly $187 billion since 1986.

Political will

The political will for change is also broadening, he says. Conservatives and the Republican Party have come to realize “reform has to happen,’’ Keller says, noting how rapidly after the 2012 presidential election that opinion leaders like Charles Krauthammer and Sean Hannity changed their tunes about immigration reform.

Those on the right had been calling for mass deportations of unauthorized immigrants. Their presidential candidate and standard-bearer last year suggested making life so miserable for the undocumented Americans that they’d self deport.

After the election – when 70 percent of Latinos voted for Obama -- they suddenly toned down their rhetoric, calling to fix the broken immigration system, Keller says.

Obama promised in Las Vegas that he will put the weight of the presidency behind a plan that outlines a "clear" path to citizenship, apparently not contingent on securing the nation’s southern borders first, as the Senate group proposes

Both the presidential and Senate plans spell out paths toward “definable earned citizenship,’’ Keller says.

American citizenship would have to be earned by passing criminal background checks and learning English. The proposals also call for unauthorized immigrants to pay fines and back taxes. (Can they afford to pay?) Additional border security, a new national program to help employers verify their workers have legal status in this country, tighter controls on visas for immigrants: All of that is a tall order. How realistic is this being implemented any time soon?

“We don’t have any of the details. I think part of what is encouraging in the president’s statements today, is he’s committed to creating a process that people can and will opt into,’’ Keller said Tuesday afternoon.

Klobuchar bill

About the new bi-partisan bill offered by Sen. Amy Klobuchar and others that calls for expanding opportunities for highly skilled and educated immigrants to attain American citizenship, Keller says: “It’s always been a part of comprehensive immigration reform. In its best light, I think she wanted to draw attention to this aspect.’’

Keller says the immigrant population is an important part of the answer to Minnesota’s need for a younger, educated labor force as baby-boomers cycle out of the workforce and as a source of new businesses. He points to support for comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level by groups like the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Immigration Coalition.

He says his office sees 20 to 25 new young undocumented clients a week seeking a path toward citizenship under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals memorandum issued by Obama last year and has filed more than 700 applications since Aug. 15.

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Cynthia Boyd's picture
Cynthia Boyd

Cynthia Boyd writes Community Sketchbook for MinnPost.