By Jose Gaspar
After months of contentious debate, the U.S. Senate has finally passed the first significant piece of legislation on immigration reform in years. The bill was crafted by a bipartisan group of four Democrats and four Republicans, hence the name "the gang of eight." It cleared the Senate with votes to spare by a 68-32 margin with all Democratic members voting in favor, as did 14 Republicans.
As testy and combative a process as it was, though, this was the easy part.
Now it will get even nastier and hostile in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where the bill is headed for debate. Or not.
Right after the historic bill cleared the Senate, Republican House Speaker John Boehner made no bones about it.
"The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes," said the congressman from Ohio. "For any legislation, including a conference report, to pass the House, it's going to have to be a bill that has the support of a majority of our members," said Boehner, referring to Republicans.
While politicos play before the cameras, there are hundreds of thousands of real people in Kern County and the rest of the Central Valley whose lives stand to be greatly impacted for better or worse depending on the outcome of whatever is decided.
Undocumented immigrants, people with no political base and ripe for exploitation in a number of ways, are easily overlooked yet are some of the most dedicated workers who make up a significant portion of the workforce in the Central Valley.
People such as Jagmohan Singh, who, having fled India where he faced religious persecution and was denied political asylum in this country, eventually settled, married and is raising a family in Bakersfield. Singh came here on a visa and did not return to India when it expired.
Yet just recently, Singh was in the grip of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facing deportation. A last-minute stay of deportation saved him. Singh is one of millions whose lives hang in the balance of comprehensive immigration reform.
The Border Security Act, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization of 2013 addresses a wide spectrum of the most political, economic and moral questions surrounding immigration. The most hotly debated issue is providing a pathway to citizenship to some of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., assuming they qualify under the bill's strict standards.
It's not just blanket amnesty for everyone. And it is a long and arduous process that could take 13 years -- or more -- before an applicant is granted citizenship.
The bill has something in it that pleases and displeases just about everyone. Among its humanitarian provisions, families would be reunited after years of separation and would be allowed to stay together in the country.
A new visa program provides labor protections for immigrants and U.S. workers. The act also adds a huge increase in border security. Some say it militarizes the border (not the one with Canada, obviously) by deploying 20,000 additional border agents, completes a 700-mile border fence and adds billions of dollars to the Department of Homeland Security to add more drones, cameras, turrets and other technology.
And it mandates that all businesses implement e-verify, which is a federal database through which employers confirm the employment eligibility of their workers after hiring. A report by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill would save the government around $900 billion, minus expenses from beefing up border security.
So the question now is: What will the Republican controlled House do with this? Its extreme right wing is fanatically opposed to anything having to do with providing a pathway to citizenship. And it is threatening to castrate members of its own party if they dare take such an approach, or vote them out of office in the next election, which just happens to be next year.
The House leadership is absolutely lost in all this, or -- more accurately -- there is no leadership. Incredibly, but not surprisingly, Kern County's own Rep. Kevin McCarthy is nowhere to be seen or heard from on this issue, at least on the date I write this. And it's not like local media hasn't tried to pin him down. He just avoids it or sends a non-response.
Several weeks ago I asked his people if McCarthy supports a pathway to citizenship as part of an immigration bill. The following written reply was: "The U.S. remains the beacon of freedom and democracy to the world, and that is why millions immigrate to our country in pursuit of opportunities to create a better life for themselves and their families and pursue the American Dream. However, our nation's immigration system is broken. While there are no legislative specifics to review at the moment, work is underway to develop real solutions that respect the rule of law and also recognize that we are a nation of immigrants. I welcome input from our community on this important issue as Congress begins to develop reforms."
Hey, Kevin, there are now specifics -- lots of 'em, in fact, that were voted on. A bipartisan group of Representatives have been working on a bill, and House Republicans will hold a closed-door powwow to try and get their act together on how to proceed with an immigration bill.
Some Central Valley Republican congressman have come out in support of the Senate bill. But nobody should be surprised when in the end, the Republican "leadership," in an attempt to deny a pathway to citizenship for those who qualify, will say that any bill with such a provision simply isn't good enough.
Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.