Hispanic activists welcome US immigration reform push, seek details

Tim Gaynor
Reuters Middle East

* Hispanic activists say drive is "heavy on enforcement"

* Republicans split on "amnesty," but see room for


PHOENIX, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Illegal immigrant Maria Duran

sat up all night outside the Arizona state capitol and prayed

for an immigration overhaul before welcoming news Monday of a

proposal that could give her legal status but left her wanting

more clarity.

A bipartisan group of Republican and Democrat senators

announced "tough but fair" steps that they hoped could be passed

by Congress this year to give 11 million illegal immigrants a

chance to eventually become American citizens.

"It's the best moment for immigration reform in years, but

we need to see more details," said Duran, 50, a homemaker who

left Mexico 28 years ago, as she huddled with activists urging

reform outside the capitol in Phoenix.

The plan, the first concerted drive for comprehensive reform

since a similar overhaul was defeated by Republicans in Congress

in 2007, would offer probationary legal status to immigrants who

register with the government and pay a fine and any back taxes.

They will also have to learn English, continue to pay taxes

and demonstrate a work history in the United States to apply for

legal permanent residency.

But the proposal - with plenty of details still to be worked

out - also seeks to ensure as a first step that the porous

border with Mexico is secure and that foreigners temporarily in

the United States return home when their visas expire.

Some activists were encouraged by the level of bipartisan

support from the four Democrat and four Republican senators who

proposed the present measure, including Charles Schumer, a New

York Democrat, and John McCain, a veteran Arizona Republican.

But they also worried that the proposal made tightening

enforcement - including adding agents and additional

surveillance systems to the southwestern border - a precondition

for all other measures in the package.

"It's really heavy on enforcement. That has always been one

of the wedge issues in the community for activists," said Gaby

Pacheco, a campaigner in Florida who was brought to the United

States from Ecuador at age eight.

While the government's own figures showed arrests on the

southwest border at a 40-year low in 2011 and deportations at a

record high, Pacheco said, "I don't think Republicans are ever

going to be satisfied with enforcement measures."


For Juana Garcia, a 27-year-old undocumented agricultural

worker from Mexico, immigration reform could ease the fear she

and her husband have of deportation and being separated from

their five children - all of whom are U.S.-born citizens.

The pair are seasonal workers who drive to Wisconsin to work

the crops there before returning to Florida's strawberry fields

and orange groves - all the while worried that they will be

pulled over for a traffic stop and detained.

Garcia, speaking in Spanish, said she has no problem with

provisions requiring immigrants to pay fines and back taxes

before getting a green card. But she said that while immigrants

want to learn English, they may need help finding time or child

care to attend classes after laboring in the fields all day.

The immigration reform proposal met with a decidedly mixed

response from Republican leaders nationally, who said that while

they supported some kind of immigration overhaul, they were

unclear if this was the right one.

"My understanding is it's basically just saying that we're

going to give everybody amnesty," said Steve Munisteri, the

Republican Party of Texas Chairman.

"But we do need immigration reform that recognizes the fact

that we have a lot of people already here, that are necessary to

be here, that are hard-working, law-abiding people that would

add to the country," he added. "We should figure out a way for

those people to have a way to stay."

Some others in the party, which lost Hispanic votes in the

November election that gave President Barack Obama a second

term, saw support for the measure as way of building bridges to

Latinos, who are the country's fastest-growing demographic.

"There's no question about it. We've got to deliver a better

message to Hispanics and immigrants ... a segment of people we

lost badly," said Chad Connelly, the South Carolina Republican

Party Chairman, adding that legislation could find support if it

involved better border security and assimilation measures.

"I've heard some people say this is more like 'earnesty'

than 'amnesty. 'Earnesty,' as in earning their way to

citizenship," he added.

(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington, David Adams

in Miami, Saundra Amrhein in Tampa, Corrie McLaggan in Austin,

Harriet McLeod in Charleston Virginia and Verna Gates in

Birmingham, Alabama; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Doina