Coalition Vows to Press Congress and Obama for Immigration Reform

Human Rights

A new coalition launched a campaign yesterday in the nation's capital to press Congress for comprehensive immigration reform legislation this year.

The Reform Immigration FOR America campaign announced its plan to garner enough votes to pass what it says are needed changes in U.S. immigration policy.

“Two hundred seventy nine votes, 218 in the House; 60 in the Senate,” said Ali Nourani, executive director of the National Immigration Reform, referring to the number of votes needed to send legislation to the desk of President Barack Obama. Obama’s signature, in effect, would be the 279th vote, and should the vision of the coalition hold sway, the legislation would introduce dramatic changes in U.S. immigration policy.

Key concerns include family reunification, the harshness of enforcement raids, border security, and effective means to address undocumented workers. There are an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

“It’s not realistic to remove 12 million people from our communities,” said John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, referring to calls by some for mass deportation. Podesta said the cost of such deportations was too high and that other alternatives would be well received by this Congress and the new administration.

The last attempt at immigration policy reform in 2007 fell short although then-President George W. Bush had earlier made it a priority.

“The time to act is now,” Podesta said. “It’s our collective challenge and responsibility to develop and advocate for common-sense immigration reform.” Podesta, who was a co-chair of Obama’s transition team, was one of several speakers with ties to the current administration.

Nourani stressed that the coalition would take Obama at his word about wanting to change the immigration system but that it would keep the political pressure on the president. Coalition’s members acknowledged that the current economic climate makes undecided legislators more wary about supporting reform, especially in districts where anti-immigrant attitudes prevail.

But AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker argued that the country's current economic difficulties should not impede immigration reform. She noted that some unethical companies use depressed economic conditions to play workers against each other, which creates a strong incentive for reform.

“Our nation’s broken immigration system isn’t working for anybody,” Holt said, “not immigrant workers who are routinely exploited by companies, and not U.S. born workers whose living standards are being undermined by the creation of a new ‘underclass.’ As a part of broad-based economic recovery, we need a comprehensive solution -- and soon.”

Nevertheless, the speakers recognized that the public tone of the immigration debate has become increasingly heated. “Let’s take the hate out of the immigration debate,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza.

Rev. Sam Rodriguez, Jr., president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, echoed her concerns. Rodriguez said immigration “is not a political issue, but rather one of a moral and spiritual imperative.” He said he was looking for that America where “welcoming the stranger” was still valued.

Reform Immigration FOR America has gathered commitments from approximately 200 organizations across the country and held a series of events in over 30 states before yesterday's event.

Other organizations represented at the press conference included: Asian American Justice Center; Coalition for Humane Rights of Los Angeles; the NAACP; and the Agriculture Coalition for Immigrant Rights. The latter was represented by Robert Dolibois, executive vice president of the American Nursery & Landscape Association. He said immigration reform is important for the nation's food security because immigrant labor is key to the U.S. farming industry.

“What is starting to change is where our food comes from," Dolibois said. "Where would we be as a nation if we largely lose the capacity to feed ourselves?”

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