Visiting the Hill: Where is the political will for immigration reform?


I just returned last night from the American Immigration Lawyer’s Association’s 2012 National Day of Action, which happens every spring as surely as Washington D.C.’s cherry trees blossom.

During this event hundreds of immigration lawyers of various political persuasions coalesce at the Capitol and then fan out to visit their respective Congressional representatives to discuss the important immigration issues of the day. This being an election year, there is no new immigration reform legislation on the table to discuss, despite how badly broken our system has become. We did have some important talking points that included:

In visiting representatives from Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota (which comprise our immigration district) I was struck by the fact that nearly all of the Congressional aides acknowledged the problems and were well aware of them. Even our most conservative representatives had heard repeatedly from farmers about how crippling and unworkable the current agricultural visa system is. Their dilemma is that they fear their constituencies. Immigration is such a hot button topic that they would rather remain silent on immigration than risk coming under political fire (the way that Rick Perry did for supporting in-state tuition for unauthorized residents of Texas.) And yet, recent studies show that 70% of Americans support immigration reform for farm workers.

This inertia isn’t unique to immigration, either. As one Senatorial aide told us, nothing significant is going to happen until after the next election. He said that there is a window of about 18 months in every six year cycle when things can actually get done.

There were still a few moments of fresh air on that beautiful spring day, such as an empassioned lunch-time speech by Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Taskforce, who believes that immigration reform cannot wait simply because of the fears of politicians. He said, “Folks, we need you to tell your stories! These stories need to be heard!” This immediately led me to wait for him outside and hand him a copy of Green Card Stories, which does exactly that. When he heard what the book was about he literally grabbed me and kissed me . My friend who was standing nearby reported that he saw tears well up in Representative Gutierrez’s eyes on hearing that we’d created such a book, which is exactly the response we’d been hoping for in our campaign to get a book onto the coffee table of every member of Congress (which you can participate in here.)

Next year, once the Presidential election hoopla is over, will be the most critical period for bringing about reform. One measure is particularly on my mind, and it relates to many of the others mentioned above. We need honest reform legislation that will allow our nation’s agricultural and other essential workers to work legally in this country. Every Congressional aide we spoke with in our district agreed that an unfair burden has been placed on farmers and similar business people who are trying to do the lawful thing in hiring badly needed workers to bring in the crops, milk cows, and process meat. As I’ve seen from first-hand experience, our current migrant worker program is expensive, unwieldy and unworkable. The truth is that most employers in these industries hire workers whom they fear may have improper documents, but they have no alternatives. As Mother Jones reports in this month’s story on the impact on Alabama farmers of its recent immigration crack-down, there simply aren’t enough American workers willing and able to do the back-breaking work that immigrant workers have long done in our country. While most of the employers I see do not exploit these workers, it certainly is easier to do so in today’s climate of detention, deportation, and separation from family.

Which brings us to the fact that today, March 31, is Cesar Chavez Day. Today would be the 85th birthday of this great civil right’s leader, who came from a family of migrant farm workers. He fought for humane treatment and fair wages for farm workers through boycotts and marches back in the 1970’s, when I was in high school. I still remember my family doing its small bit by boycotting lettuce. While his activism helped improve the lives of many, Cesar Chavez warned that the struggle would never end, which rings truer today than it ever has. If only we could devise a fair and honest system of immigration for the essential workers our country we would no longer need to worry so much about the devastating aftermath of our deportation policies, as we would see a major decline in deportation instead of the current, steady increase.

Finally, I want to mention a man of similar background to Cesar Chavez, who was honored at the American Immigration Council’s annual Immigrant Achievement Awards Thursday night in D.C. Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa came to the U.S. at age 19 from Mexico without documents, picked cotton, shared a one room apartment with five family members, and aspired to something more. He studied English, excelled in school, and graduated cum laude from Harvard Medical School, eventually becoming a professor of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, working on a cure for brain cancer.

He reports that working in the fields was more difficult for him than going through medical school. When he received his award he didn’t dwell on his accomplishments, but rather spoke about how much it pains him that today’s young people in similar circumstances do not have the opportunity to utilize their talents because they have no practical way of becoming legalized.

As a society, we urgently need to change our immigration policies so that people like Dr. Q (as he is called) can come out of hiding and lend their talents to the development of our great immigrant nation. We can overcome the lack of political will by showing our leadership that we care and that we support reform. Cesar Chavez is famous for something else, by the way, which is the expression, “Si se puede.” Translation: “Yes we can.”