Most agree the Senate’s sweeping immigration reform bill is a good first step in addressing the need to change current laws. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Despite concerns, Latinos say immigration bill is “a breakthrough moment”

So it’s out.  The eight Senators who came together from two different parties to fundamentally overhaul the nation’s immigration laws have drafted a bill, which will be presented in a press conference tomorrow — Boston’s tragic events delayed today’s announcement.  The bill is truly a start — there is no guarantee it will lead to a law — and in fact, the heated debate is just getting started.  Regardless of the outcome, the bill is not seen as business as usual.

“It’s a breakthrough moment,” says Clarissa Martinez de Castro, Director of Immigration and National Campaigns at the National Council of La Raza,  “This package is important on two levels — it acknowledges that if you are serious about restoring the rule of law, it’s not just about smart enforcement but about a roadmap to citizenship,” she says. “But in order to restore the rule of law, you need to have a working legal immigration system that provides incentives for people to go through it rather than around it,” says Martinez de Castro.

The eight senators who drafted the legislation, including New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez and Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, are expected to have a press conference tomorrow, and two senators, John McCain and Chuck Schumer, were briefing President Barack Obama today.

“While not perfect, the Gang of Eight bill is a step forward to creating an earned path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants eagerly waiting to contribute to the American fabric,” said Voto Latino‘s “I’m Ready for Immigration Reform” coalition, made up of groups such as the NAACP, the Human Rights Campaign, Rock the Vote, the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, APALA and others.

The group did address two issues that will not be part of the proposed legislation.  “We hope sponsorships of same-sex partners and protecting diversity visas will be addressed in committee,” said the statement.

For DREAMers — who are credited with having put a face on the immigration issue in recent years — the bill represents a big victory.“The DREAM provision of this bill represents the power our movement has built  and is a landmark achievement  — a five-year path to citizenship, exemption from fines, and the ability for deported DREAMers to return,” said Lorella Praelli, Director of Advocacy and Policy for United We Dream.

Joey San Javier is a sophomore at Polk State College in Lakeland, Florida, and is active in the Florida Immigrant Youth Network .  Like many other Latinos in the U.S., San Javier is a citizen, but has Mexican relatives who are undocumented.  On the bill’s 13-year proposed path to citizenship for those who are here illegally, the college sophomore says it might be too long, but he is looking forward to learning more about the bill.

Daniel Garza, Executive Director of the Libre Initiative, a center-right Latino group which advocates for less government intervention, says creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is a smart step for the economy.

“It legalizes the relationship between employers and employees; it provides certainty to both, and it improves family conditions as well as economic relief,” says Garza, who met today with some in the Gang of Eight who created the bill.  Garza expressed worry over some of the fees. “If the penalties are too restrictive, it may not get full participation from those who are here illegally, and the economy benefits if there is full participation,” Garza adds.

Kica Matos, from the Center for Community Change, described the bill as an “historic step toward a humane policy reform.” One concern is eligibility — the cutoff date for undocumented immigrants to be eligible for legalization is the end of 2011.  “This will leave thousands of families out of the process,” says Matos.

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The bill allocates significant resources to border security, and sets the creation and implementation of border security measures, E-verify and employment requirements, and electronic exit systems for U.S. visitors as triggers to be met before allowing undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

Maria Fernanda Cabello, a Houston, Texas field organizer for United We Dream, was blunt in her opposition to this part of the bill. “Border security isn’t border security; it’s border militarization and it’s harming and terrorizing our communities,” said Cabello in a statement.  “We will not accept anything that would make the path to citizenship for anyone contingent on unattainable, unnecessary border security metrics,” stated UWD’s Lorella Praelli.

Border security was and is an important prerequisite for many legislators, especially Republicans.

Lynn Tramonte, Deputy Director of America’s Voice, says there are details and concerns that will be debated, but it’s a major step forward.

“They’ve done a lot of great work,” says Tramonte. “Many bipartisan gangs in Congress have not been able to produce a bill, but this confirms the nature of a compromise; some senators got some things and other senators got others,” she explains.

In the end, Tramonte says, “This is not just about statistics. It’s about people.”

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