Sitting on his living room couch in Beardsville, a young Mexican immigrant named Alejandro smiles wistfully as he recalls marrying his wife Maria in 2006. They met and married in Beardstown, raising two sons, Alex, 5, and Diego, 2. But Alejandro’s smile quickly turns into a pained grimace as he describes how Maria took their two sons to her native Mexico last year. Alejandro hasn’t gotten to see them since.
He is a legal immigrant, one of many working at the Cargill pig plant in Beardstown, but Maria came to the United States illegally. Current immigration law, Alejandro says, dictates that Maria had to go home before could start the process of obtaining legal status in the United States, and that means their family is torn between two worlds: one in which a father eagerly builds a better life in anticipation of his family’s return, and another in which a mother and her sons endure a jobless, violent and corrupt environment with no clear picture of when they can leave.
It’s a common story, says Shelly Heideman, executive director of Springfield’s Faith Coalition for the Common Good, and that families being split up is only one of the group’s concerns about immigration reform.
“This is really an issue that many people don’t think about, but it affects so many peoples’ very lives” Heideman says. “We need change that will keep families together and not criminalize people who just come here to make a better life.”
Heideman says the current process to become a citizen is convoluted and fraught with uncertainty. The issue affects immigrants nationwide, she says, and any changes will have a large impact on the growing populations of Latin American and African immigrants in Beardstown and Rushville. Illinois is home to an estimated 540,000 illegal immigrants, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
But change may be on the horizon. Illinois’ own Sen. Dick Durbin, the second ranking member of the U.S. Senate, has made immigration reform a cornerstone of his service platform, and is currently working on reform legislation. Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker says the issue is personal to Durbin because Durbin’s mother, a Lithuanian immigrant, came to America to seek a better life.
“He even has her framed naturalization certificate hanging in his office,” Shoemaker says of Durbin. “In his view of America, the contribution of immigrants is right at the front.”
Shoemaker, himself a Taylorville native with three Italian immigrant grandparents, says Durbin’s future bill would fundamentally change the immigration system in America.
“It has to start with better enforcement of border security,” Shoemaker says. “That deals with upgraded patrols, because there are a lot of patrol gaps in areas with rugged terrain, and that’s where the (smugglers) do most of their work. We need to address that.”
He says the legislation will institute tougher fines on small businesses that hire illegal workers, as well as possible criminal sanctions for larger businesses that could absorb fines and continue to break the law. Upgraded, tamper-proof Social Security cards with biometric data could also aid enforcement, though that measure is still being mulled over because of civil liberties concerns.
Shoemaker says the bill will not include amnesty for illegal immigrants, but will provide a “tough but fair path to citizenship.”
“They’ll probably have to pay a fine, and they’ll go to the back of the line,” he says. “But the important thing is getting them in the line. We have an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in this country, and it just isn’t realistic to deport 12 million people.”
Part of the pathway to citizenship is the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, which would allow permanent residency for illegal immigrant students who graduate from US high schools, have not been convicted of certain crimes, arrived in the US before age 16 and have been in the country continuously for at least five years.
Ivan, a 17-year-old Mexican immigrant in Beardstown, says some of his best friends in school, who are illegal immigrants, cannot go to college under the current law because they don’t have Social Security numbers.
“They’re really smart, and they want to go to college, but they can’t,” Ivan says. “They want to work hard and contribute to this country.”
Shoemaker says the reform push is planned for this summer, and between 30 and 40 Democratic senators are already on board, with expectations for more support once bipartisan negotiations take place. However, the pace of reforms is largely dependant on how long it takes the Senate to confirm the next U.S. Supreme Court justice, Shoemaker points out.
“I’m not sure they can handle two major issues like that at a time,” he says. “You know, you get farther into the fall in an election year and absolutely nothing happens around here.”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at firstname.lastname@example.org.