National Voices

Wednesday, Feb 20 2013 11:00 PM

ESTHER CEPEDA: Voices for the voiceless in immigration debate

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    Esther Cepeda

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By The Bakersfield Californian

CHICAGO -- As we begin to see what comprehensive immigration reform could look like, I tend to grit my teeth in frustration with the all-or-nothing crowd.

These are the people and organizations that look at various scenarios and storm in with a list of demands or a string of reasons why even preliminary proposals aren't tenable.

When immigrant advocacy groups send out impatient emails declaring that whatever is up for discussion just isn't good enough, I always wonder, "Why can't you, for just one minute, take on a spirit of compromise instead of doing your best to torpedo an already fragile process?"

Now, as details of the proposals by both the White House and a bipartisan group of senators are starting to emerge, one issue is how many illegal immigrants could be left out.

According to a Colorlines magazine analysis of previously debated proposals, anywhere from 3.6 million to nearly 6 million could be excluded from citizenship because they're unable to meet the English-language requirement, millions more for not meeting residency requirements or barriers such as nonviolent criminal records. The overall message: There shouldn't be any barriers.

There are other objections. Last week, groups started promoting a report from the University of Southern California that suggests the fees associated with the naturalization process are too high. The message: Not only should the process be easy; it should also be cheap.

I don't see how these demands are supposed to buoy a compromise process that has, until very recently, been thwarted by Republicans fearful of upsetting the nativist wing of their conservative base.

But we may need to at least hear the vocal advocates out, if for no other reason than their viewpoints need to be recognized by those legislators who are in the position to make the bargains needed for a compromise.

Take Presente.org, a Berkeley-based organization that describes itself as existing "to amplify the political voice of Latino communities." It is running an advocacy campaign titled "Citizenship for all 11 million, no less," which turns the strategy of going along with politically viable stances on its head.

Echoing a complaint I hear with regularity from small, grass-roots immigrant advocacy organizations who say their issues are being ignored, Arturo Carmona, Presente.org's executive director, told me that the Latino community shouldn't fret about not agreeing on what constitutes a reasonable compromise for reform. More worrisome to him is that most of the people who will be impacted have little say in the debate.

"It is a very important political moment, but it's also very important that we find a reasonable, expedient pathway to citizenship for the 11-plus million -- we think that's a middle-of-the-road approach," he said.

For Carmona, a "real solution" doesn't mean addressing only the exemplary illegal immigrants but the whole population, warts and all. It's a population, he says, that has had little opportunity to help shape a workable compromise.

"Our role is to elevate the voice of the constituency who doesn't have a voice," he said. "You've certainly seen some progress in getting real undocumented people to play a role in the discussions -- you've seen DREAMers who have become better represented -- but the vast majority of the undocumented population are domestic workers, carwash workers, day laborers. And their voices are not being adequately represented in the debate right now."

Carmona has a point. Every politician who supports reform makes it a habit of trotting out a model would-be citizen, while opponents will cite hardened immigrant criminals as their examples.

It's the people in the middle -- the ones who might not have money for fines, time to take English-as-a-second-language classes, or squeaky clean records because they live hand-to-mouth in jobs that employers hired them to do despite their legal status -- who need to be taken into account.

An all-or-nothing strategy isn't going to work for everyone. But if we completely ignore those who will surely be left out of a legalization opportunity, we will be debating what to do with them for years to come.

Email Esther J. Cepeda of The Washington Post Writers Group at estherjcepeda @ washpost.com.

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