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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.

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The drafters of the bill want to bolster border security and immigration checks by employers to make it less enticing to overstay a visa or slip into the country to find a job.

Employers, from tech companies to farms, demand access to new, reliable streams of labor, while unions fear the potential erosion of wages.

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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Immigrant groups want legalization, but they feared the politically toxic label of "amnesty."

And there are people who want unauthorized immigrants to face serious punishment for violating the law.

The Senate seems poised to pass this complicated bill, negotiated by four Republicans and four Democrats, with a big majority, but it won’t become law without action by the Republican House — and that’s far from certain.

"A lot of the debate is being controlled by center-right politicians and by Republicans who are demanding concessions," says Salt Lake City attorney and radio personality Mark Alvarez.

That includes Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Hatch says he’s prepared to support the bill if Democrats require undocumented immigrants to pay back taxes and wait for a total of 15 years before being eligible for federal health care subsidies.

The senator, who has not previously supported a pathway to citizenship, says he’s just trying to ensure these immigrants are treated like everyone else.

Alvarez bristles at all of the obstacles to citizenship, but he does so quietly.

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"I know what I want is not possible in Washington," he says, explaining why he is not fighting to make the path to citizenship easier and shorter. "I think President Obama is doing this as well. He’s staying out of the conversation because he knows his involvement in it could put at risk the passage of immigration reform."

Supporters say reform would transform labor markets and the border with Mexico. Critics claim it would harm the middle class and attract more people to come by any means necessary.

In either case, the real legacy of the bill won’t be budgets or border fencing — it would be in the day-to-day lives of those with newly granted legal status or inside the homes of reunited immigrants.

Still seeking sanctuary » After fleeing a turbulent Mexico in 1988, Norma Klemz is still seeking sanctuary. She and her two kids bolted California and her abusive husband to start fresh in Montana, but soon after settled in Utah, where she found love.

Now married with a blended family of five kids, the Murray resident’s immigration status remains on administrative hold. But the indignities are constant.

A landlord labeled her family "pigs" — despite their tidy home — because of her brown skin. A clerk refused to swipe her debit card at Harmons, causing a scene while questioning her legal status. And she worries about driving — what if she is pulled over for a faulty taillight and profiled — or shopping amid aggressive police on the valley’s west side.

"It’s not an easy way to live," Klemz says. "I consider the United States my country, but I know it’s not, because I’m not welcome."

Steve Klemz, her husband and pastor at Salt Lake City’s Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, says Norma has incredible pride but no voice. "In every way you turn, you are not valued" if undocumented, Steve Klemz says. "Your human dignity is assaulted."

Norma Klemz twice had a green card only to lose it each time under appeal. She cannot visit her dying mother in Mexico. And she has spent $15,000 and counting on her citizenship push.

"It’s every day, I think, ‘What if I’m going to get separated from my family,’ " Norma Klemz says. "They see you as a piece of paper. They don’t see your life, they don’t see your story. They don’t see how you struggle."

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