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Let us hope on immigration

“We need Congress to act on a comprehensive approach that finally deals with the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are in this country right now.

“The good news is that – for the first time in many years – Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together.  Members of both parties, in both chambers, are actively working on a solution.  And yesterday, a bi-partisan group of senators announced their principles for comprehensive immigration reform, which are very much in line with the principles I’ve proposed and campaigned on for the last few years.  At this moment, it looks like there’s a genuine desire to get this done soon.  And that’s very encouraging.”
– President Obama, announcing his plan for reforming the immigration laws, January 29, 2013

The national discussion over foreign nationals who live and work here without proper legal documents has at last been brought into the public arena for political debate in Washington. It is an issue that for too long has been delayed, resulting in a two-tiered standard of living for many of our neighbors.

In the Boston neighborhoods of Dorchester and Mattapan, there are scores of residents who emigrated to our shores in recent years and continue to reside here without legal authority. Some of them are referred to as “illegals,” but the more proper term is “undocumented,” for they are here without proper documentation.

Calling them illegal is a derisive term that works to dehumanize and portray them as criminals. Truth is, most are persons who traveled here to our country on US State Department-issued non-immigrant visas allowing short term visits, for example as students or tourists, and then made a decision to remain here. When their visas expired they become classified as “overstays,” and fell into an almost anonymous netherworld.

Prior to 1996, overstaying a visa was treated as a relatively minor civil offense. If found to be in the country without legal status, they could be deported, pay a fine, and still apply to reenter the US. But that year Congress passed an imigration reform act imposing harsh new penalties, including barring a return to the US for as many as ten years, and those measures remain in force today.

The president’s plan for immigration reform announced this week includes four main goals: Continuing to strengthen border security, cracking down on employers hiring undocumented workers, streamlining legal immigration; and enabling such persons to earn citizenship.

It has been eight years since the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and Sen. John McCain authored the McCain-Kennedy bill, and six years since the Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Reform Act of 2007 was introduced. Those measures and others had substantial support from Democrats and Republicans alike, including President George W. Bush, Sen. Harry Reid, Sen. Lindsey Graham and other senators, the so-called “Gang of 12.”

Each time, compromises were made. And each time, all proposals failed.
This week, a new coalition of senators made known their commitment to move ahead this year with immigration reform. Coming just one day before the president unveiled his proposals before an audience in Texas, there’s the hope that a bipartisan resolution to these issues can be realized in this Congress.

This could be the time when the bickering comes to an end and a realistic resolution to immigration reform becomes a reality. Let us hope.

But let’s remember to not hold our breath.