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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Domingo Gonzalez (left) with his 7-year-old daughter Susana and his wife Maritza Gonzalez stand in front of the food truck that the family runs. Domingo faces deportation hearings after he was stopped at the border when returning from a visit to his ailing father.
Immigration debate’s missing piece — immigrants

Debate in D.C. centers on issue’s nuts and bolts, not on real people, including Utahns, whose families are torn apart and who live in fear.

First Published Jun 23 2013 12:03 am • Last Updated Dec 07 2013 11:34 pm

Máxima Uribe’s buoyant voice deflates, then falls apart remembering what her 6-year-old son, Diego, wants for Christmas.

"My little boy always wishes for his dad," the Eagle Mountain mother of four manages to say. "For Christmas, that’s what he wanted — for his dad to be here."

At a glance

Impact on immigrants

Path to citizenship » Under the Senate reform bill, it would take undocumented immigrants at least 13 years to obtain citizenship, but only about six months to get temporary legal status and the right to work. The government would call them “registered provisional immigrants,” a status they could renew every six years as long as they paid their taxes and a $1,000 fine, remained employed and didn’t run afoul of the law. After 10 years, they could apply for a green card and, three years after that, citizenship.

Dream act » The bill has a shorter path to citizenship — eight years — for the children of undocumented immigrants who entered the country before they were 16 years old and graduated from high school or received a GED. They must have been in the country before the end of 2011. The bill offers a similar fast track for agriculture workers.

Visa backlog » The proposal promises to eliminate the family reunification backlog that varies by country. In Mexico, it’s about 20 years and for those from China, it’s about seven years.

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At every cardiologist visit, Uribe’s disabled 7-year-old daughter, Karina, whom doctors call the "miracle baby," wishes the same thing — especially hoping to see him before her likely heart transplant.

Deported to Mexico in 2010, Uribe’s husband, José Aguilar, has contact with his wife and kids only by phone. They can’t afford Internet access to Skype. And Aguilar is too terrified to cross the border again.

When the couple filed residency papers for Aguilar, they learned his voluntary visits to Mexico years earlier carry the same penalty as deportation. He faces a 10-year ban — potentially 30 years — for multiple deportations.

"When they took him to take his fingerprints, he never came out of there," says Uribe, a U.S. citizen, between sobs. "It’s like they took everything away from us."

Such fractured families get little airtime in Washington, D.C., where the debate over comprehensive immigration reform has been overwhelmed with talk of drones patrolling the border and heavier financial penalties for the undocumented.

When Congress debates farm subsidies, lawmakers tell stories of farmers in need. When it debates student-loan legislation, members talk about the plight of low-income students. But few senators have devoted much time to discussing the millions of lives the immigration bill could change in profoundly personal ways. Those impacts have been drowned out in a race to toughen up the bill to attract Republican support before this week’s expected vote. And that has left some of the reform effort’s biggest champions disillusioned.

"There are plenty of ways to continue to punish immigrants in our country, and many of my colleagues are coming up with a long list of them," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one of the bill’s sponsors, tells The Salt Lake Tribune. "Ultimately, I believe these people need to be treated fairly, given a chance to register with our government, pay a fine, pay their taxes and ultimately become part of legalized America."


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Politics of the impersonal » If the Senate bill becomes law, José Aguilar would be able to reunite with the family that needs him desperately. It would eliminate the 10-year penalty for the previously deported, an idea supported by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a skeptic of the Senate approach to reform who believes that it encourages people to immigrate illegally.

The legislation would also wipe out the decades-long wait some foreigners face to obtain a visa. And it would quickly provide work permits to most of the people here illegally and allow them to eventually obtain citizenship if they want it badly enough.

White House officials call these provisions the "heart" of the bill, but the heart isn’t enough. Most Republicans and a fair number of Democrats won’t support this reform unless they believe it would stop future waves of illegal immigration and reorient the visa program to favor needed workers instead of wives and children and siblings.

Bill opponents argue those fixes should come first and be securely in place before anyone gains legal status — fearing the government would drag its feet on enforcement but plow straight ahead on a path to citizenship.

Immigrant groups are ready to compromise, just not that much, with activists insisting they don’t want a handout, just a chance to contribute. They hold regular rallies in front of the U.S. Capitol, and they packed meetings of the Judiciary Committee in May, hoping to remind politicians of the human impact.

The Rev. Eun-sang Lee, of Salt Lake City’s First United Methodist Church, came to the United States 35 years ago from South Korea and has advocated relentlessly for an easier path for future immigrants. He had a coveted seat before the Judiciary Committee when it approved the bill, but it didn’t feel like a victory to him.

Instead, Lee said he felt: "Sadness. People’s lives being debated as a political issue. That is difficult."

He understood senators rejected ideas he considered benevolent to preserve a bipartisan deal — like one amendment that would allow people facing extreme hardships to bring their siblings here to help them — but he had a hard time accepting what he witnessed.

"I understand the political process, but that doesn’t make it right," he says, advocating for a bill focused on the lives of unauthorized immigrants. "They should have no more fear of living under constant threat of deportation and family breakup. Give them a chance to contribute openly, a chance to fulfill their dreams."

Lee might have found the debate and vote depressing, but a group of young Latinos with the Campaign for Citizenship was overjoyed. Applause turned to cheers and dueling chants of "Yes we can" and its Spanish equivalent, "Sí se puede." They rushed the senators and took cellphone pictures with Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., treating them as celebrities.

Arely Cruz, 20, was one of them. She took three weeks off from her classes at Utah Valley University to keep up a constant presence. She prayed for the senators before each meeting began and for her family, herself and her community.

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