Each year, the Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice generally honors immigrants who succeed in winning asylum or a green card against all odds.
Things will be a little different this time.
The organization will be celebrating bipartisanship at its 17th annual gala on March 7, as Republicans and Democrats begin working toward immigration reform.
“Fixing our broken immigration system ought to be a national priority,” said San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who will be the event’s keynote speaker at the Hotel Intercontinental in downtown Miami. He’ll be introduced by Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and current chairman of the American Conservative Union.
“For the first time in a long time we have a chance to get this right,” said Cardenas, referring to Congress’ fledgling efforts on immigration reform. “It’s a narrow window of opportunity and all of us need to do our part to see comprehensive immigration reform succeed.”
South Florida’s push comes as the White House and Congress step up efforts to offer some form of immigration reform legislation later this year that would legalize undocumented immigrants, officially estimated at 11.5 million.
Last week, the White House acknowledged it has prepared its own immigration reform bill that would grant undocumented immigrants – without any criminal convictions – temporary legal status.
In eight years, they would receive a green card after paying fines, fees and back taxes.
Last month, eight senators announced a bipartisan immigration reform proposal that would allow undocumented immigrants to get temporary status, but would receive green cards only after immigration controls are further tightened, and they learn English.
While the two proposals appear similar, some Republican lawmakers have criticized the White House proposal, without offering specifics. Some lawmakers indicated that President Barack Obama’s plan interferes with efforts by the eight senators to draft their own plan.
Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press recently, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Obama’s proposal would fail if the White House persisted in going forward. He encouraged the White House to give senators a chance to continue their bipartisan work.
It is that effort that Americans for Immigrant Justice plans to celebrate at its dinner next week.
The bipartisan push makes immigration reform more possible than before, said Cheryl Little, the group’s executive director. That makes it more likely that Congress will pass a bill to legalize undocumented immigrants – long a key goal of immigration activists.
“We opened our doors to see this day,” Little said. “We have been fighting for comprehensive immigration reform since we started our organization.”
Americans for Immigrant Justice was founded in 1996 under the name Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. The group changed its name two years ago.
Since its inception, the group has helped thousands of immigrants – Cubans, Central Americans, Haitians, Mexicans and many others – secure asylum, green cards, temporary legal status or refugee benefits.
Its mission is to protect and promote the basic human rights of immigrants through free legal services, policy reform and public education.
Reform more likely
Little said immigration reform seems more likely this year because of the last presidential election in which Hispanic voters overwhelmingly voted for Obama, even though he did not fulfill his first-term promise of enacting immigration reform. Since Obama’s reelection, many Republicans have softened their opposition to immigration reform.
“The Democrats have a debt to pay, and the Republicans a party to save,” Little said. “That gives me hope.”
The group also will honor Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, for her longtime support for immigration reform.
“I’m humbled to be recognized for any small contribution I might have made toward the noble goal of helping so many freedom and opportunity-seeking individuals,” she said. “Americans for Immigrant Justice has been working nonstop on comprehensive immigration reform, and the hard work of the members of this important organization is bearing fruit.”