Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
BY KAREN SHUEY, Staff Writer
They've seen this before.
A bipartisan group of leaders in Congress rolls out a plan to reform immigration, and the president pledges action.
Lawmakers tried and failed in 2007 and 2010 to tackle immigration reform. Both times the effort collapsed amid a conservative backlash.
So it's no surprise that some Lancaster County activists are greeting the latest proposal for comprehensive reform with guarded optimism.
"This is a step in the right direction, but whether this will translate into real legislation is still a long ways away," said Jose Urdaneta.
But this time could be different, the Lancaster City Council member said, in large part because Republicans want to improve their standing among Latino voters.
"The Republicans used immigration as a wedge issue to divide voters in the past. But now Latinos are voting and they've changed their tune," Urdaneta, a Democrat, said.
Whether the change of heart is entirely politically motivated, Urdaneta said, doesn't really matter.
"Politics should not be the driving force for our leaders to deal with this issue, but if it was, let's take advantage of it and get things done," he said.
That's why Urdaneta and others cheered President Barack Obama last month when he pushed for Congress to provide many of the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants with "a clear pathway to citizenship."
That goal differs from a framework for immigration reform that was announced a day earlier by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators. The Senate blueprint would not provide a pathway until the border with Mexico is secure and foreigners with expired visas leave the country.
Father Allan Wolfe, of Iglesia Católica San Juan Bautista, said the Senate proposal places too much emphasis on border control.
"A lot of people have had their lives put on hold waiting for a pathway to citizenship," he said. "To say one thing must come first is wrong because the whole system is broken."
The Senate plan calls for offering illegal immigrants the chance to quickly achieve probationary legal residency, provided they register with the government and pay a fine and back taxes.
Wolfe said the success of the plan will largely depend on whether it gets bogged down with paperwork and makes unnecessary demands.
The good news is that support for making the system easier is growing outside of Washington as well, said Spanish American Civic Association CEO Carlos Graupera.
A new national poll found that a slim majority of Americans believe that illegal immigrants should be able to stay in the United States and apply for citizenship.
Fifty-one percent think illegal immigrants should be able to remain in the country and apply for citizenship, while an additional 20 percent think they should stay as guest workers. Twenty-four percent say they should have to leave the country, according to the CBS News poll.
Wolfe said he believes the people who oppose giving immigrants legal status have a false illusion that most are gang members and criminals.
The overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants, Graupera said, work hard to achieve the American dream.
"Everyone wants to come here for a better life and more opportunity," he said. "They take extraordinary risks to get here, and all they want is to live in a place where they will get a fair shot."
Urdaneta said the appeal of the U.S. is something he understands well.
"I saw firsthand what my wife (who immigrated from Venezuela) had to go through to become a citizen, and the system is tough," he said.
But it was the desire to provide a better life for their children that kept her and others pushing forward.
About 45,000 Latinos live in Lancaster County, according to the 2010 census. The number of those here illegally is not known.
The hard part, Urdaneta said, will be making sure the momentum for reform doesn't fizzle.
"Obama and the group of senators laid the groundwork for immigration reform to happen this year," he said. "It's up to them now."
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