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After more than ten years of battling for legislation to legalize undocumented young people who have resided in the US since they were children, the Senate immigration reform bill may offer the Dreamers the best chance yet.
If immigration reform is to happen this year, it will be driven by the economic and political changes occurring in communities across our country. But it will also be because of the lives that have been touched by this issue. One of the groups that would benefit the most is the one known as the “Dreamers,” the Latino (a) generations who have grown up and spent their lives in this country, but who are counted as “undocumented” because they were brought here as children without proper visas. Under the immigration bill currently being proposed in Washington, the Dreamers would be able to obtain legal residency, and be able to apply to become citizens. The Dreamers are an educated, articulate and motivated group—an incredible important but unrealized part of the human capital of this city and state.
Chattanooga is a city of many Dreamers, and when asked what difference this legislation would make in their lives, one Dreamer in South Chattanooga, a recent high school graduate with a 3.6 GPA, simply said, “I would be able to be myself, to work under my own name, and to go to college.” A Dreamer in Hixson, an avid reader who writes poetry and short stories, “would be able to go to college, and to own a house in my own name, and to build a future for my son.” And Karla, a Dreamer in Nashville who has helped organize clusters of Dreamers across the state was “very excited” about this provision being in Senate Bill 744, but stressed it was important that reform includes the parents and those “original Dreamers” who came here to provide a better life for their families.
Social change happens as we hear each other’s stories. And real change happens as we work toward a community and country where
everyone not only can dream, but fully participate.
The debate continues.
Where immigration reform currently stands
We live in a time of partisan sniping and the politics of exclusion and extremism. A litany of political commentators and social media buzz on both the left and right continually assure us that we are in a perfect storm of political gridlock. But there are those rare times when it all comes together even in the midst of political inertia. This may be one of those times. And immigration reform is the cause.
As the Washington Post said, “The most far-reaching overhaul of the nation’s immigration system in a generation has emerged mostly unscathed from the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill’s bipartisan sponsors showed that, even in Washington, the center can sometimes hold. Though the legislation, all 800-odd pages of it, contains provisions that pained Democratic and Republican backers alike, they gritted their teeth and voted it out of committee and onto the Senate floor.” Or in the words of the New Yorker, “The bill that was passed, on May 21st, satisfies nobody.”
U.S. Senate Bill 744 (with the summary title “To provide for comprehensive immigration reform and for other purposes”) was introduced on April 17, 2013 by a group of senators known as the “Gang of 8.”This bipartisan group has unsuccessfully tried to find some common ground and progress on several issues, and now has joined the debate over immigration. On May 21, their proposal, amended (over 200 amendments were offered) but not substantively changed, was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and could be on the floor of the Senate for full debate this week or next. The bill’s chances for passage look good in the Senate. And companion bills are being written in the House.
Of course, there are significant challenges ahead before immigration reform can be signed into law. Yet there are several reasons to hope and believe that immigration reform could happen this year. Political decisions are often if not always driven by electoral reality, and our politicians—even in Tennessee—have been noticing some changes in our area and nationally. We have changed demographically: immigration rates have been higher in the Southeast during the past ten years. We are a much more ethnically and racially diverse community. And the voting rolls are beginning to reflect that change. We have changed economically; immigration has provided a stronger and more diverse workforce for a number of area businesses, and immigrants pay more than their fair share of taxes, especially in a sales-tax-dependent state like Tennessee. Immigration continues to be a positive economic driver in the local and state economy. And we have changed culturally; immigration has been an integral part of our cultural mix since the first Native American — European encounters in the 1500s. Chattanooga’s history has had a robust cultural mix ever since. Those changes haven’t gone unnoticed—Tennessee groups supporting immigration reform this year include unlikely allies across the political spectrum.
The 800 pages of Senate Bill 744
S.B.744, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” has four major sections, each dealing with specific issues in the immigration area.
Title I (Border Security) includes requirements for various border plans, triggers, and the structure for Department of Homeland Security oversight. Title II (Immigrant Visas) deals with the legalization of the current undocumented population, the regulation of future legal immigration flows, and the integration of newcomers. Title III (Interior Enforcement) addresses workforce issues such as E-Verify, humanitarian reforms, and due process protections. Title IV (Reforms to Nonimmigrant Visa Programs) addresses existing visa programs for nonimmigrant workers and creates a new “W” visa for lesser-skilled workers (such as the “blue card” for undocumented farm workers) and includes a startup visa provision for entrepreneurs from other countries who create jobs and raise more than $500, 000 in capital.
There are arguable flaws in the bill, most concerned with arbitrary cut-off dates on applications and limits on visas in some areas. And border security spending is still driven more by political expediency rather than data and qualitative research, as was made clear during the discussion and amendment process in the Senate Judiciary committee. This is nothing new, as most immigration bills since the late 19th century have reflected the political needs and prejudices of their day, especially in the allotment of visas for different groups and nationalities.
Still, most analysts agree that S.B. 744 would fundamentally rebuild the nation’s broken-down, irrational, and politically driven immigration system in positive and substantive ways. It would also provide an opportunity to remove (or at least tone down) immigration reform as a political issue and offer 11 million of our undocumented neighbors a chance to fully participate in the American economy and society. And that certainly includes the Dreamers, nationally, statewide and here in Chattanooga.