Religious, activist, business groups united in support of immigration reform

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 21, 2013 - 6:02 AM

As the U.S. Senate begins what promises to be protracted debate over the issue, groups with their own vested interests in supporting reform are far from sitting on the sidelines back home.

Clergy have staged quiet vigils at local offices of Minnesota’s two U.S. senators and now are focusing on House members. In a Cargill auditorium, the company’s chief executive officer joins a town hall meeting via satellite with D.C.’s influential. At a storefront radio station on Lake Street in Minneapolis, a Spanish-speaking activist urges listeners to come out of the shadows.

A rare alliance has emerged on an issue of mutual interest: supporting immigration reform.

“If you can get such strange bedfellows all on the same page for one issue, it’s a pretty good indication that the status quo is unacceptable,” said John Keller, head of the Minnesota Immigrant Law Center.

As the U.S. Senate begins what promises to be protracted debate over the issue and the House has yet to weigh in, groups with their own vested interests in supporting reform are far from sitting on the sidelines back home.

The groups have separate constituencies and interests. The Minnesota Business and Advocacy Immigration Coalition, which recently met with Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., includes an unlikely collection that includes the Minnesota AFL-CIO, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Minnesota Milk Producers Association, Minnesota Council of Churches and the Minnesota Nursing & Landscape Association.

Some guiding principles do unite them: a timely and affordable way for current immigrants and their families to gain a pathway to citizenship, accurate verification status of workers, and a simple and timely approach to the future flow of immigration.

Their methods run from high-tech to old-school.

One recent afternoon, Juve Meza was at the studios of the Spanish language radio station La Invasora in Minneapolis to make the case to the station’s listeners that this time, it might be different for them. Meza is a volunteer for a group called Navigate Mn, which helps immigrant students. Meza came to the United States from Mexico at age 15. He said he’s seen anti-immigrant sentiment grow in Minnesota and nationwide.

Now 25, he senses a turn, forced by the realities of demographics and results of the 2012 election.

On Sunday, a rally was held at Corcoran Park in Minneapolis. On Tuesday night, supporters gathered at El Colegio High School in south Minneapolis for a phone bank, using lists of registered voters tied to specific congressional district office.

To Meza, immigration reform is personal.

“I think it’s important that we take action so that youth feel safe in their schools, so that they can have a better future, so that our families get to stay intact,” he said. “Immigration reform will solve a lot of ills in my community. I know the positive contributions that I’ve made and others have made, and everyone should have that chance.”

Their opposition takes a more diffused approach.

Roy Beck, President of Virginia-based NumbersUSA, whose 2.5 million members advocate for lower immigration levels, said a visible absence of any opposing groups does not mean their voices are not out there.

“It’s truly grass-roots,” he said. “You are not going to see coalitions of that type. Instead what you are going to have are organic groups. What we are doing is connecting one-on-one with members of Congress. That’s something that happens on their telephone or on their computer.”

‘Enhanced our economy’

With satellite feeds and Twitter comments displayed on plasma screens next to him last week, Cargill CEO Greg Page was part of a town hall discussion that included U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as part of the “Immigration Outside In” campaign from the National Association of Manufacturers. The group says a broken immigration system is responsible for 600,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs.

For Minnetonka-based Cargill, which operates massive food processing plants, the ability to verify that a worker is who he says he is has proved problematic. The government’s “E-Verify” system has error rates that are too high to be reliable and it needs to be improved, said Page, who tells the audience there is a more fundamental issue at stake, as well.

“What have these people done that has harmed us?” he asked. “They’ve enhanced our economy, they’ve improved our competitiveness, they take care of our elderly. How are we going to treat people who have contributed so much for so many years?”

For months, a bipartisan group in the House has pledged to unveil its version of a bill to no avail. Sticking points like concerns over border security and criticism of amnesty for lawbreakers remain for opponents. Polls show support for reform but concerns about porous borders. But amid it all, there has been little local concerted resistance to match the fervor of the groups that have emerged to support reform. There are divisions in these coalitions, but none currently appear significant enough to fracture them. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, for instance, supports higher numbers for a proposal to provide temporary visas for low-skilled workers. The program, known as the W-Visa, would be limited to 20,000 visas the first year and grow to 75,000 by the fourth year.

The chamber supports even higher numbers of W-Visa workers. But some groups, such as organized labor, have balked. Bill Blazar, senior vice president of the Minnesota chamber, said he does not anticipate the issue being a deal-breaker as the issue is debated in the Senate and eventually the House.

The Minnesota Chamber has rarely engaged itself so aggressively in federal issues (the only other recent issue was health care), and Blazar said that has not gone unnoticed among the state’s congressional delegation. With both senators favoring reform, the group has begun approaching some Minnesota members of the House, assuring them the Chamber can provide business support within their districts where the debate might turn tough. Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., for instance, has been a focus of attention for the Chamber.

“This legislation is really important to the development and growth of Minnesota’s economy,” Blazar said.

In May, 35 members of the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration, a partnership of faith-based organizations, held a vigil at the office of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., on the eve of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote on the bill. They have concerns that the costs associated with fines and back taxes might be prohibitive for struggling immigrant families. Potential costs associated with paths to citizenship or permanent resident status have been estimated to be $4,000 per person or more. The group has quietly shown up at the offices of several members of the Minnesota congressional delegation. It uses e-mail blasts to keep others informed of new developments.

For the Interfaith Coalition, efforts have been rooted more in their faith than on the bottom line.

“Immigrants coming right now are to us signs of hope for our nation,” said the Rev. John Guttermann, pastor of the United Church of Christ in New Brighton and a member of the coalition. “That they want to come, that immigrants are here, is something that renews our own sense of faith and value in this country.”

 

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

 

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