Reform Proposal Gives Valley’s Undocumented Migrants Hope

By Vanessa Colon, Dennis Pollock, and Jeff St. John, The Fresno Bee
May 18, 2007

Cynthia Saldovar has been waiting 10 years in the shadows for an opportunity to earn her right to live legally in the United States.

On Thursday, the undocumented immigrant said that a proposed overhaul of the nation's immigration laws reached by Senate leaders and the White House could make that hope real.

"It's great. A lot of us would like this," the 25-year-old Fresno resident said of the compromise.

Her praise was echoed by a wide variety of central San Joaquin Valley immigration watchers, including some farm industry leaders and immigration rights groups, who said it was a welcome chance to reform the nation's broken immigration system.

"This is a big day for those of us who want to see meaningful immigration reform," California Farm Bureau President Doug Mosebar said, "but details remain to be worked out, and we know there will be many long days ahead."

Not everyone is happy. Groups that want to curb illegal immigration want a bill that doesn't offer undocumented workers an opportunity to earn a legal status -- even if it includes paying fees and passing criminal background checks, as the Senate proposal includes.

"It's an amnesty. We simply can't afford having an amnesty," said Caroline Espinosa, spokeswoman for NumbersUSA, an Arlington, Va.-based organization that favors reducing illegal immigration.

The proposal that emerged this week after months of secretive negotiation contains many sweeping changes to the nation's immigration laws, including two guest worker programs, one for farmworkers and one for all other workers.

It also would introduce a "point system" that would rate immigrants' education and skill levels over family connections in deciding how to award green cards.

Among the most exciting possibilities for immigrants, Saldovar said, was a proposal to allow the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the United States a chance to apply for permanent legal status.

But Saldovar thinks the proposed requirements to become a permanent legal resident -- including a $5,000 fine -- may be too much for her and others who came to the United States to find the prosperity denied them in their home countries.

Leonel Flores, Fresno coordinator of the Union of Exbraceros and Immigrants, a nonprofit immigrant rights group, also said some of the proposed fees were too high.

"The prices should be accessible for workers who work at a minimum wage," he said in Spanish.

Camille Cook, an immigration attorney in Fresno, said she hopes the bill addresses the needs of people who have been in the country 10 or more years, especially those who have family members who are American citizens.

"As long as they clear up the backlogs and do something for people who have been here for many years, we are not opposed to it in theory," Cook said.

"I'm really concerned [about] the larger number of people who have been brought here as minors. They have no relief because they came undocumented. How can you hold that against someone who came in when they were 3?" Cook said.

Cook said she's not against a point or merit system that determines who's eligible for a legal status, as long as it's fair.

"You can make a point system that's really fair," she said, "or a point system geared toward educated Europeans."

Other immigrant rights group called the proposal a step in the right direction, but said they still have some concerns.

Rufino Dominguez, general coordinator of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, said he worries that many people won't qualify under the set conditions. Dominguez favors criminal background checks and a merit-based system but says it will be a challenge for some who don't know even how to read and write.

But as immigrant rights groups struggled over details of the proposals emerging from the Senate on Thursday, some groups against illegal immigration said they hope the bill never makes it to the Senate floor.

"This is not what Americans want. This is what big business wants," said Diana Hull, president of Californians for Population Stabilization in Santa Barbara. She called the proposal to offer legal status to illegal residents amnesty.

"We've been there and done that in '86," she said, referring to the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed that year, which offered a streamlined path to legal status for millions of illegal residents. "The last amnesty was supposed to solve the immigration solution. Ten years later, there were four times as many illegal immigrants."

In the meantime, Valley business interests with a stake in the immigration debate expressed cautious optimism about the proposals working their way through the Senate.

Earlier this week, Manuel Cunha Jr., who heads the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, said one piece of the current proposal that could be very difficult for the state's immigrant agricultural work force -- the requirement that all applying for legal status must first return to their countries of origin.

"That could take years," he said. "It's different if it's a matter of going to the border and registering and then returning. For ag to wait for years -- no way. We're losing our work force."

Cunha and Russel Efird, president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, are among a contingent of 16 people from California visiting the nation's capital to press for reform to meet the needs of agriculture under proposed AgJobs legislation.

Efird said change is urgently needed because of expected shortages of workers to harvest this year's corps.

"We barely got by last year and that was with the tree fruit and grape crops off about 30%," he said. "This year we have good full crops. We'll need the workers."

Mike Prandini, president of the Building Industry Association of Fresno and Madera Counties, said the Senate proposals "meet some of the objections to opening things up to full-scale citizenship."

"It sounds like an interesting concept," he said.

Pat Ricchiuti, a principal in Clovis-based P-R Farms, said reform that creates some path to citizenship is the "right thing to do for hard-working and honorable visitors to our country."

"This is not amnesty."

Ricchiuti said fines and the need to return -- for however long -- to their native country are simply a price that will have to be paid. "It behooves them to do that if they want to be part of our economy," he said. "They'll need to square accounts."

Armando Elenes, organizing director for the United Farm Workers, said the Senate action is "a huge step forward."

"It's something we have been working on for many, many years now," he said. "Hopefully, we're seeing a group of Democrats and Republicans who feel that farmworkers deserve the right to apply for and earn their citizenship."

The reporters can be reached at vcolon@fresnobee.com, dpollock@fresnobee.com, jeffstjohn@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6329

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