BY JOSE GASPAR Contributing columnist
South High School graduate Maria Perez is one of the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants to be granted temporary permission to remain in the country and get a work permit and a driver's license. The 19-year-old applied for and was granted such status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recently implemented by the federal government.
Brought to this country from Mexico when she was 5 months old, Perez could not apply for financial aid for college or legally work because of her immigration status. Her world changed when she recently received notice that she will be able to go to college, get a job and not worry about being deported. She wants to become a nurse.
"Another opportunity like this is not going to come," Perez said.
Perhaps yes, perhaps no.
Millions more undocumented people are bracing themselves for what's to come this year as a bipartisan group of senators announced they have come up with an outline to tackle the politically sensitive issue of comprehensive immigration reform.
Yes, four Republicans -- John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina join four Democrats -- Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado. Their formidable task is to actually do something to address an issue long ignored or shot down by extremists on both sides.
The group estimates there are up to 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows. Republicans in particular are loath to talk about any plan that would eventually lead to citizenship for those undocumented who may qualify under yet-to-be proposed specific legislation.
Why the resistance, especially since Republican Ronald Reagan did the exact same thing when he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1968, during which some 3 million undocumented immigrants gained legal residency?
Why now the 180-degree turn by Republicans? Can you say "elections?" And the fact that a whopping 70 percent of Hispanics and Asians voted for Barack Obama for president in November? Much of that support for Obama had to do with the issue of comprehensive immigration reform. Although Obama failed to deliver so much as a proposed bill during his first term in office, there was no way Republicans would have ceded anything, assuring no passage.
"The Republican Party is losing support of our Hispanic citizens," said Arizona Sen. John McCain. Brilliant observation. It appears Republicans, at least at the national level, have seen the writing on the wall. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Latino voters will jump from 12.5 million to 25 million, meaning Latino voters will double in the next 20 years. That's a lot of votes Republicans can't ignore any longer and Republicans can't afford to have those votes continue to go to Democrats.
Here are the four basic legislative pillars, released by the eight senators, to be debated in coming weeks:
I. Create a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already here that is contingent upon securing the border and combating visa overstays.
This sounds good, but I suspect some will use the "securing the border" clause as an excuse to shoot down any and all attempts to proceed any further.
II. Improve our legal immigration system and attract the world's best and brightest.
III. Strong employment verification. Jobs are what draw undocumented immigrants to this country, no matter how menial the work or low paying a job may be. Employers who knowingly hire unauthorized workers must face stiff fines and criminal penalties for egregious conduct.
Hey, wait a minute. This was already written in the Immigration Reform and Control Act signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986. Apparently it's not working very well. Why not? And when was the last time anyone heard of any major agribusiness employer in Kern County being slapped with criminal penalties for hiring undocumented workers?
IV. Admitting new workers and protecting workers' rights. This part aims to provide businesses with the ability to hire lower-skilled workers in a timely manner when Americans are unavailable or unwilling to fill those jobs. Watch for major debate on this issue, with plenty of input from the United Farm Workers Union, which represents farm workers who toil in the Central Valley.
President Obama outlined his own vision of immigration reform and in a speech in Las Vegas said that if the eight senators don't get their act together in a "timely fashion," he'll bypass the group with his own proposal and insist they vote on it right away. This move was applauded by several local farm workers who traveled to Las Vegas to hear the president speak.
"We can't afford to sit by any longer with our arms crossed and just hope that immigration reform happens," said Matilde Cervantes Lopez, who makes a living picking grapes and originally came to the country as undocumented.
The group of eight senators will have to somehow find a way to break the gridlock in Washington with their bipartisan plan. It won't be easy because much of the opposition to any sort of legalized status will come from the far right. That's where Republican Marco Rubio comes in. A Tea Party favorite, Rubio's job will be to try and convince his own party's detractors to support their effort.
And what role will Kern County's congressman, Kevin McCarthy, play in all this? He's not saying much for now, other than he thinks that this is an issue that is not going away and can't be ignored any longer. McCarthy said he'll wait to see the details of any proposed plan before saying anything. Others, though, are speaking out.
"I do ask God that something finally be done to help those 11 million people come out of the shadows," said farm worker Juana Carbajal.
In my previous column dealing with the controversy over whether former Bakersfield Ward 1 councilman Rudy Salas should pay the city for the cost of having a special election to replace him, I wrote that current councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan said "Rudy Salas should pay for the election out of his own pocket."
Sullivan called to clarify that she meant to say that Salas should pay for the cost of the special election out of his campaign funds, not out of his own pocket. While Sullivan did say Salas should pay for the election, it was an error on my part to interpret this as Salas having to pay using his personal money. The controversy continues, as Mayor Harvey Hall has fired off a letter to Salas asking him to pay the city for the cost of a special election.
-- 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 email@example.com.