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Continued: Divergent forces mobilize for immigration reforms

Dairy farmers, business leaders and Latino tamale makers typically are not political soulmates. On Wednesday, however, they and a cross section of other Minnesotans joined forces in support of new plans to overhaul the nation's immigration system.

"This [reform] is the key ingredient to the development and growth of Minnesota's economy,'' said Bill Blazer, senior vice president at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which has been working for years to change an immigration system that reform advocates contend makes it nearly impossible for businesses to hire critical foreign workers and for undocumented workers to gain a pathway to citizenship.

It's also a key to stabilizing families and communities, said Uriel Rosales, 23, of Minneapolis, one of several speakers at a Capitol press conference Wednesday announcing a new coalition to support reforms.

"My father was deported when I was a freshman in college,'' said Rosales. "It was very painful. ... But under the current system, there was no way for him to become legal here. Hopefully the new reforms will help people like him still in the country and people who want to be reunited with their families.''

The remarks came in response to immigration-overhaul proposals laid out this week by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and President Obama. The senators proposed a concrete set of immigration changes, while Obama endorsed broad principles to reshape an immigration system that hasn't had a major overhaul in more than 25 years.

Both call for tougher border enforcement, penalties for employers who hire illegal workers and a pathway to citizenship for foreigners who come here illegally.

The last piece is the thorniest issue. There are about 11 million undocumented workers nationwide and thousands in Minnesota. They should not be rewarded for breaking the law, say opponents of the proposed reforms.

"I don't feel like we owe them anything,'' said Paul Westrum, founder of the Minnesota Coalition for Immigration Reduction, which he says has 32 chapters statewide that will be working to defeat the measure.

"With a nearly 9 percent unemployment, we don't need more workers,'' said Westrum, of Albert Lea. He also argued that undocumented workers cost communities money because they use schools, hospitals and other city services.

Opponents low-key

But reform opponents were barely visible this week in Minnesota. Instead, groups ranging from the Minnesota Agri-Business Council to the St. Paul synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said they hoped that reforms would come soon.

Daryn McBeth is president of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, which represents about 200 state employers ranging from dairy farms to landscapers to meatpackers. Many jobs at such businesses are difficult to fill, he said, but it's next to impossible to get visas for foreign workers.

"The visa system needs to reflect the ebb and flow of the economy,'' McBeth said.

Along Minneapolis streets where Latino-owned businesses have taken root, leaders said an immigration overhaul would spark even more immigrant-owned businesses.

For example, Enrique Garcia launched his La Loma tamale business in 1999, selling about 5,000 tamales that year. Today he sells nearly a million a year at many locations. He would like to expand further, but he's waiting for reform.

"Right now, people are afraid,'' said Garcia. "They work. They go home. They don't spend much money.''

Just getting a job can be tough for immigrants, he added. People often need a driver's license, he said, and "that creates a problem right away.'' If people can become legal, they can apply for a driver's license and insurance and find work -- and that helps everyone, Garcia said.

Rosales said giving undocumented workers a chance to become legal will be a huge boost to families. While young immigrants who came here as children now have a pathway to legalization, their parents are still locked out, he said.

Rosales said that watching Obama's speech this week gave him hope that "my mother will have a chance to walk alongside me ... completely unafraid.''

Fighting amnesty

Dell Erickson, a longtime immigration opponent from Brooklyn Center, also had Obama on his mind this week. He had sent the president a letter telling him to halt any "amnesty'' for undocumented workers.

He urged the president to end all immigration until the unemployment rate reaches 3 percent, and to stop giving U.S. citizenship to the children of undocumented workers.

He doesn't buy the argument that businesses need foreign workers, saying, "We don't need more people of any kind.''

The biggest difference between the Senate and Obama proposals is how and when undocumented workers could get citizenship. The Senate plan would require that U.S. borders first be secured before any such paths are cleared.

"The [Senate] pathway to citizenship is full of land mines,'' said John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of St. Paul. "It's unclear who would certify that the borders are secure, and how.''

In spite of the disagreements, Minnesota advocates for immigration reform believe change will come this year. Said Keller, "It's a time of optimism.''

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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