WASHINGTON, D.C. – Hispanic groups reacted with optimism this week to U.S. President George W. Bush’s call in his Jan. 23 State of the Union address for congressional passage of immigration reforms that include guest-worker provisions and a path toward legal residence for many undocumented foreigners working in the United States.
“We’re pleased that the President has confirmed his commitment to reform on something we have to move forward on,” said Michele Waslin, the director of immigration policy for the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).
However, she warned that the reform needs to include the legalization of the country’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants and “respect for human rights.”
There are thought to be several million Central Americans living in the United States, both legally and illegally, who send money back to their families. Those remittances, which measure in the billions of dollars in Central America, have become increasingly important to the region’s fragile economies in recent years.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recently approved 193,000 re-registrations from among the 226,000 Salvadorans who asked for a one-year extension of their Temporary Protected Status (TPS). But hundreds of thousands of other Salvadorans are living in the country illegally, sending back more than $2.2 billion a year in remittances.
Nearly one in five Salvadorans lives out of the country, mostly in the United States.And there are scores of Guatemalans, Hondurans and Nicaraguans who leave each year to make the trek to “El Norte.”
The effort to legalize the status of those immigrants is being applauded cautiously.
The Fair Immigration Reform Movement stressed it is remaining firm on its position that comprehensive immigration reform must include the legalization of all undocumented people who currently live in the United States.
In a statement, the reform movement explained that President Bush has said in the past that he supports a broad reform, “but now we want to see action.”
The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, meanwhile, said that the support of the President for the reform “is a positive contribution to our national discussion on the future of our immigration policy.”
The association expressed its satisfaction because Bush acknowledged the need to resolve the situation of undocumented people in the country and said that now he must show leadership by working with Congress for a fair reform that opens the door to legalization of illegal immigrants’ status.
“Extending hope and opportunity in our country requires an immigration system worthy of America, with laws that are fair and borders that are secure,” President Bush said in the annual speech to both houses of Congress. “Let us have a serious, civil and conclusive debate so that you can pass, and I can sign, comprehensive immigration reform into law.”
The President acknowledged that many of those even in his own Republican Party staunchly oppose the idea that people who sneaked illegally into the country might be given the opportunity to legalize their status.
“We will enforce our immigration laws at the work site, and give employers the tools to verify the legal status of their workers, so there is no excuse left for violating the law,” he said.
Bush went on to say, “We need to uphold the great tradition of the melting pot that welcomes and assimilates new arrivals. And we need to resolve the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country, without animosity and without amnesty… We should establish a legal and orderly path for foreign workers to enter our country to work on a temporary basis.”
President Bush said that by establishing a legal way for immigrants to enter the country, they “won’t have to try to sneak in, and that will leave border agents free to chase down drug smugglers, and criminals, and terrorists.”
Attempts at thorough immigration-law overhaul have stalled in recent years under Republican control of Congress. But with Democrats now holding majorities in both the House and the Senate, some see better prospects for fixing a system almost everyone agrees is broken.
The victory of the Democrats in the November mid-term elections gave hope to those people supporting regularization of the status of undocumented foreigners in the United States.
In the Senate, the Democrats have included immigration reform on the list of their 10 priority projects.
Earlier this month, Vermont Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy, the new chairman of the judiciary committee, appealed to his colleagues “to put aside the mean-spiritedness and short-sighted policies driven by fear and recognize the dignity of those whose work contributes to reinvigorating America.”
He added, “As the new Congress begins, we have a tremendous opportunity before us to enact fair, comprehensive immigration reform. It is time for bipartisan action.”
Those opposing legalizing the status of undocumented immigrants are undaunted by Democratic control of the legislature.
Jack Martin, director of special projects for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, said many of the new Democrats elected to Congress opposed legalizing undocumented people during their campaigns.
Martin said the 500,000 members of his organization nationwide will send letters to and will telephone their legislators to urge them to not even think about legalizing the “illegals.”
“We are going to fight against amnesty,” he vowed, using the term conservatives employ for “regularization” of the undocumented. Politicians also will be under pressure from another quarter.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which with its 3 million members is the largest business federation in the world, has committed itself to use its influence to promote immigration reform that includes a guest worker program.