Jennifer Moore has met several immigrants in Middle Georgia. They are parents who want a better education for their children. They are residents who want to live a safer existence. They are churchgoers, club members and taxpayers.
So Moore, an immigration attorney in Macon, says the immigration reform proposed this week by the U.S. Senate and President Barack Obama is a step in the right direction. And others who have a stake in immigration policies agree.
The reality is, theyre here, Moore said. But theyre not documentable, and thats the issue. And I think thats what this policy and debate is really about.
Moore works with people on a daily basis who live with the fear of being deported, having their families torn apart and are violating various labor and wage laws, she said.
So far, the proposals are centered on a pathway to citizenship for about 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
Under the proposed reform, those immigrants could get probationary documentation allowing them to live and work in the U.S. It would allow more lower-skilled immigrants to come to the U.S. when the economy is on an upswing and fewer when it is weak, according to the Associated Press.
Additionally, the reform would improve visitor monitoring, increase border security and enforce penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants, among other measures.
While gaining citizenship would still be a long process, Moores clients are excited about the reform talks, she said.
Jorge Villarreal, a Mexico native and owner of El Carnaval, a Latin restaurant and grocery store in Macon, praises the immigration discussion. His immigrant customers are hopeful that changes will be made, he said.
In Georgia, Hispanics and Latinos make up 9.1 percent of the population. That rate is 6.8 percent in Peach County, 6.1 percent in Houston County and 2.8 percent in Bibb County, according to the latest U.S. Census data.
Most of the people, theyve been waiting for this, Villarreal said.
Hopefully, reform would make life a little easier for immigrants, he said. It would make immigrants feel more welcomed and more comfortable to invest and work in their communities, Villarreal said.
Many local immigrants work on farms, harvesting the fields. Its an essential source of income, but its also important labor for local farmers. When talking about the importance of immigrant workers to local farmers, Charles Hall thinks back to 2011, when a Georgia law aimed at curbing illegal immigration drew widespread attention. House Bill 87 allows law enforcement to check the immigration status of those who do not have proper identification and cracks down on residents who transport or harbor illegal immigrants.
Immigrant crews, many of whom come from Florida, were skittish in 2011 of crossing into Georgia to work during harvest time. There were rumors of roadblocks and jail cells, and the workers were afraid they would be arrested. That year, Georgia lost about 40 percent of its harvest workers and about $140 million in crops were left unharvested in the fields, said Hall, executive director of the LaGrange-based Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
There are people who think that our U.S. citizens are willing and able to do the type of work we have to have done in fields, he said, but we didnt find that to be the case in 2011.
Hall, who works with many farmers, is cautiously optimistic about the proposed reform as he waits to hear more details, he said.
The devils in the details, he said. What were hearing from the Senate discussions sounds very favorable and would be very beneficial to growers. However, we dont have any great details.
On the surface, it seems to be a bonus for state farmers, many of whom encounter a drawn out process when trying to verify their workers statuses, Hall said.
Georgia last year began enforcing the E-Verify portion of its immigration laws, which require businesses to use the online system to make sure their workers are legal. But that task will become increasingly difficult without some type of guest worker program for immigrants, Hall said.
Without a quick way to get a temporary worker status, illegal immigrants have been obtaining fake Social Security numbers and identification cards. When employers send that information through the system, the numbers come back mismatched, and farmers are put in the middle of having to basically police the people that are applying for jobs, Hall said.
A swift process to obtain temporary working statuses would alleviate that process for farmers, something many farmers learned in 1986 when another immigration reform went into effect. Illegal immigrants were offered a way to citizenship, but borders were not adequately patrolled, and no guest worker program was created, Hall said. Within a few years, we were in the same situation, he said.
The new proposal calls for a probationary status for immigrants while they wait for citizenship, and a quick pathway to citizenship for immigrant farm workers, according to the AP.
A similar temporary status already is in place for immigrants that works very well, Moore said, but that status eventually expires, so full citizenship is necessary, she said.
While the Senate immigration proposal is a bipartisan effort, the reform will have its share of critics. Supporters, such as Moore, even have some issues.
For example, Moore does not believe the proposal addresses the reasons immigrants come here. It seems to insinuate that people mainly immigrate for jobs, but there are so many more reasons, such as education and safety, she said.
Still, Moore said its an important step. While reform has been proposed before, its encouraging that this time it seems to be a bipartisan effort, she said.
In the past, it hasnt been there. It has been very one-sided, Moore said. Now were seeing discussion from both parties on opposite sides ... both Democrats and Republicans are having a discussion we have not heard in the past.
To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.