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Immigration bill a lost opportunity

The Republican
Springfield Massachusetts
Monday, January 28, 2008


WASHINGTON - In hindsight, the immigration reform package that died on the Senate floor last year because of a Republican filibuster, now appears to be a missed opportunity.

James R. Ayres, executive director of the Center for New Americans based in Northampton, doubts Congress or the White House will tackle the issue again for at least two years. Ayres recently returned from an exchange program visit to Spain, where he traveled with a delegation of Western Massachusetts community leaders and educators to talk about immigration challenges.

"I don`t think we will see immigration (reform) in the next two years, no matter who is elected," Ayres told The Republican. "It is not an issue they are going to want to touch - and that is not to say it doesn`t need to be addressed."

Ayres` organization welcomes newly arrived immigrants and refugees to Western Massachusetts by connecting them with English lessons, computer training, and assistance in finding jobs, housing or health insurance.

He said his recent discussions with Spanish officials on their experiences with immigrants arriving from North Africa and South America underscored the importance of comprehensive immigration reform back home.

"Until 10 years ago, Spain was always facing a net exodus of people," Ayres said. "Then suddenly, within the last 10 years, it has the third-highest rate of immigration in the world," with the United States being the first.

To the Spanish, America is the pioneer in immigration, according to Ayres.

"What was nice to see in Spain was people were talking about it all the time, and for the most part, the conversation is happening on a civil level," he said. "Clearly, we have got to look at security as well as human rights, but let`s do that in a way that is humane and acknowledges the dignity of people involved and the reality of the system we have. Like it or not, we have sectors of the economy dependent on undocumented workers, and if we want to change, we need to look at all aspects together."

While flawed, Ayres said, the immigration bill considered by the U.S. Senate attempted to address the concerns of secure borders while offering immigrants a path to earning citizenship.

The bill, written largely by U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and U.S. Sen. John S. McCain, R-Ariz., aimed to secure the U.S.-Mexico border while allowing the 12 million immigrants who remain in the country illegally to earn citizenship by paying fines, taxes, learning English and obeying U.S. law.

However, it was attacked from all sides, by those who saw it as rewarding "illegal immigrants" and those who believed it was too harsh on "undocumented workers."

Immigration has remained a hot-button issue in the GOP presidential primaries, where opponents have accused McCain of offering people in the country illegally a "hall pass" to citizenship.

Republican candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. W. Mitt Romney, as he was leaving office in December 2006, negotiated terms with federal authorities under which state police officers could arrest people based on their immigration status.

His policy played out in Springfield last summer as a divided House and Senate debated on Capitol Hill. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers conducted raids in the North End of the city, ultimately deporting to Central America at least two heads of households as their wives and children remained behind.

Actions like that concern Betty M. Lichtenstein, director of Enlace de Familias, an agency based in South Holyoke that supports families with infant and toddler day-care and services for adults.

Lichtenstein - who also participated in the Spanish exchange program - came to Holyoke in the 1970s, becoming a community activist seeking equal opportunities in housing, education and employment amid racial tensions between Latinos, police and politicians. She went on to be elected in the mid-1980s to the Holyoke School Committee, where she served for nearly a decade.

"(Spanish officials) wanted details, and I could only talk about my experiences in Holyoke," Lichtenstein said.

"I came to Holyoke in the 1970s when holy hell was breaking loose," she said. "There was arson for profit, race riots and a new community arriving from Puerto Rico ... the city was in no (way) prepared, and the schools weren`t ready."

Lichtenstein returned from Spain with the realization that Holyoke has made significant strides to accommodate new arrivals, but there remains a stubborn achievement gap and the overriding question of how it can assist existing impoverished residents and prepare for future immigrants.

For Mohamed F. Good, director of programs at the Somali Development Center in Springfield, who teaches graduate courses at Springfield College on building multi-cultural organization, came to Western Massachusetts as a refugee 23 years ago. He was also a Fulbright scholar.

Looking at the immigrant experience over the past two decades, Good says refugees who come to America, despite experiencing trauma in their homelands, including loss of property and division of their families, are given official status by the U.S. government that shields them from exploitation and other dangers.

Good, who is also a residence director at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, says lawmakers need to reform national immigration policy to protect workers from exploitation, assure immigrants their civil rights and to guarantee the protection of the civil rights. In counting undocumented workers, Good said, America becomes safer "because you know who is in the country."

"It is an issue that needs immediate attention," he said. "People working here, if they contribute to the development of the country, should feel free. It hurts when parents are separated. We need to address this in the most humane way.

"Immigrants have been the history of this country."��