On immigration Washington stuck in same place: nowhere

Juanita Ceballos

When I finished the manuscript Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town earlier this year, I was obsessively monitoring what was happening with the immigration reform bill and rewriting portions of my book’s epilogue until the editors pried it from my hands.

This is the last paragraph I updated: “On April 17, a bipartisan group of eight senators introduced a sweeping immigration bill that President Obama characterized as ‘largely consistent’ with his principles but that drew the ire of opponents who began to publicly discuss strategies to kill the bill. At issue is the fear among conservatives that a clear path to citizenship would encourage even more illegal immigration. The bill passed the Senate in late June. As of his writing, it is unclear if the House will pass a similar bill.”

I both feared and hoped that, by the time the book was released, the paragraph would be obsolete.

My book will be released on Tuesday. The House has yet to pass a bill. It is still unclear what will happen with immigration reform.

In many ways, at the federal level, we are stuck in the same place we were almost five years ago when the events I narrate in Hunting Season transpired.

On Nov. 8, 2008, an Ecuadorian immigrant named Marcelo Lucero was killed by a group of seven teenagers as he walked with a friend near the train station in Patchogue, a village on Long Island about 60 miles from Manhattan.

All the teenagers but one later confessed that they had attacked immigrants for fun more than once, some as recent as hours before Lucero was killed. It was a horrifying story on many levels.

But it was especially troublesome because, as I delved deeply into the subject, I realized the attackers were victims as well. They were reacting in violent and unexpected ways — as some teenagers do — to events they felt were out of their control.

Back then, in the midst of much confusion and vitriol regarding illegal immigration and in the absence of congressional leadership on the issue, states, cities and small towns and villages across the country had begun making their own laws to curtail the flow of immigrants in their communities and minimize their impact on schools, businesses, hospitals and even local traffic.

Towns penalized landlords for having too many people living under the same roof and went after business owners for hiring people who were not authorized to work. One town even prohibited people from making hand signals to incoming traffic, a clear attempt to stop day workers from soliciting work from employers who often drove around looking for cheap labor.

Though the angry rhetoric has subsided somewhat, the country still lacks a coherent and cohesive immigration law. Millions of people continue to live in the shadows and communities continue to bear the responsibility — costly not only in financial terms — of acculturating and integrating newcomers to their towns.

But there is a crucial difference now, and it is hard to know what caused the shift (other than the crushing rebuke of Republicans during the presidential election last year). There are cities in the U.S. — mostly in the Midwest — that are doing all they can to attract both skilled and low-wage immigrants to revive their ailing economies.

One such city is Dayton, Ohio, which is very close to the district represented by the Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner, who has repeatedly made clear his displeasure with the Senate’s immigration bill. President Obama has said that the only roadblock to immigration reform is Boehner.

Dayton officials told The New York Times they are not waiting for Boehner or Congress to begin integrating immigrants into their society. They are doing it themselves by having a very public conversation about immigration and educating both sides to understand and accept each other. It’s not a perfect or an easy solution, but it is working.

On a larger scale, California is changing the rules, so to speak. Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and a bipartisan Legislature have passed laws allowing undocumented immigrants to drive and to be licensed as lawyers. The governor also just signed a law that makes it harder to detain and deport undocumented immigrants who have not committed crimes or who have minor offenses.

California is not the only state making history. More than a dozen states allow undocumented college students to pay in-state college tuition — Florida is not one of them — and undocumented immigrants in nine states (again, not in Florida) and the District of Columbia can now drive legally.

In the meantime, marches and vigils are taking place across the country while in Washington eight lawmakers were arrested on Tuesday outside the Capitol protesting the inaction of their peers.

Undocumented immigrants are here to stay and Washington’s delay in acknowledging that reality is only making legislators seem out of step with their constituents. Just like five years ago, Americans are moving on, with or without their government. Only this time, they seem to be moving in the right direction.

Read more Mirta Ojito stories from the Miami Herald


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