EL PASO, Texas – Now that the historic health care reform bill has been pushed through Capitol Hill, hundreds of thousands of immigration reform supporters expect to see their comprehensive plan in the congressional forefront this year.
“It’s been needed. It’s been needed for a while now,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of Border Network for Human Rights, who organized a march in El Paso, Texas. “We have people being separated. We have people being deported. These are not criminals. These are workers.”
Demonstrators are pressuring government officials to make immigration reform a reality by lobbying, rallying and marching. Immigration advocates say President Obama has not fulfilled his campaign promise of dealing with immigration in his the first year of his presidency.
“We had a lot of expectations when we have the new president, Obama, and the new congress, and too be honest, not much has changed,” Garcia said.
On April 10, more than 1,000 supporters assembled at the University of Texas at El Paso. The rowdy gathering, with participants of all ages and from both sides of the border, marched through Central El Paso and El Paso’s Segundo Barrio neighborhood, chanting “Obama eschucha estamos en la lucha,” drawing attention from home and business owners in the area.
“It’s important that we bring attention to the fact that we need immigration reform. It’s way overdue,” said Enriqueta Fierro, president of League of United Latin American Citizens council 335.
The procession wrapped around the corner of El Paso and 6th street, in front of the congested Paso Del Norte International port of entry bridge, before heading back toward the university campus.
“We’re on the border and we have so many people who have crossed, who have stayed, who are undocumented. They need to find a life,” Fierro said. “They do contribute to our economy.”
Marches have taken place in many cities across the country in the last decade as the topic resonates louder. Large-groups in New York and Chicago also marched April 10. About 10,000 in Los Angeles rallied a week before those.
The demonstrations emphasize how families are separated and the country is hurt economically and socially under the current system.
“This country as a whole has benefited greatly. If we were to have, truly, a work stoppage where everybody who’s not legal would not work, this country would be crippled,” said UTEP lecturer Elsa Duarte-Noboa.
Julio Noboa, coordinator of the Multicultural Alliance of Social Studies Advocates, said undocumented people are vulnerable in the community. They are susceptible to abuse from employers, authorities and other figures.
“A criminal has more rights than an undocumented person does,” Noboa said.
Most importantly, Garcia said legalizing current and future immigrants, stopping raids and deportation, and increasing the amount of working visas available.
“People are coming through ports of entry with no regulation, they’re coming as they say illegally because they don’t have any other options, but we need them. We need those workers,” Garcia said.
John Justice, who attended the El Paso march, said the amount of visas dispersed does not match the total needed to sustain the economy.
“The country is not thinking along the right lines. What we need to be doing is we need to be welcoming immigrants to the country,” Justice said.
Justice said immigrants are important because many baby boomers will be retiring and collecting their investments in the next few years. Immigrants will not only help fill jobs but also feed into the economy.
“We have to continue to grow and because there are so many baby boomers about to retire that are pulling money out for social security and things like that, we need people that are paying taxes to go back into the system,” Justice said.
Justice, who works as an At Risk Coordinator at Bowie High School, a school that sits less than a mile away from the border in El Paso, Texas said immigration is also important to education.
“I see kids dropping out of school because they have a social security card so they can go to work. Their parents can’t work and the parents are at home, and the kids are out of school,” Justice said. “That’s not helping the kids to progress and to do well because they’re the only ones that can get a job.”
Fierro said any overhaul of the immigration system would be acceptable to her. She said a change is needed.
“We just have to do something,” Fierro said. “Something has to be done, and we need to start.”
Obama promised to work on the issue in 2009 but because of health care reform’s long delay in Congress, immigration has waited.
“Although we know that he’s been very busy with other issues, we want to remind him that this is crucial for our nation, “ Duarte-Noboa said.
Advocates are calling for Congress to introduce a bill at the end of April. However, immigration reform may be overshadowed again, in 2010, by financial reform and energy policy debates and midterm elections.
A comprehensive plan, which most advocates said should include a pathway to legalization for undocumented people, may be overwhelmingly resisted. Homeland security is also a large part of the resistance.
“There is an easy way of distinguishing who’s a worker, who wants to come here to survive and work and contribute to our economy, and who is a criminal,” Noboa said.
Immigration could be as heated as the health care debate, but it will have to be taken up by Congress first.