It's been six years since the full Senate considered an overhaul of America's immigration system. Since then I have witnessed countless instances of what that delay has meant. I've seen American families torn apart by deportation and promising young scientists at America's finest research institutions blocked by interminable visa backlogs. I've watched American companies stagnate because of arbitrary limits on visas for high skilled workers. My fellow immigration attorneys and I have done our best to help a multitude of men, women and children hopelessly caught in the dysfunctional web of archaic laws and regulations that make up America's broken immigration system.
Yet, sitting in Cleveland, Ohio today, I'm more hopeful than ever that comprehensive reform will become a reality this year. The pundits tell us that the political stars have aligned. President Obama wants to make good on his promise to Latino voters and build a second term legacy. And the Republicans learned last November that a platform limited to "self-deportation" and racial profiling laws are a ticket to electoral disaster.
But my optimism is based less on confluence of political interests than it is the American people. I see an understanding for why immigration reform is necessary around Ohio and the country. Like in Youngstown, Ohio where the renewed vitality of the American auto industry is creating jobs and folks want the immigration problem fixed so that their families remain safe, and local businesses can thrive.
Other cities in Ohio offer the same feeling, like Painesville, Canton, and Freemont Ohio where immigration reform would free American families from the fear of agents invading their homes to arrest an undocumented spouse, parent, or sibling. Immigration reform could mean that the best days may lay ahead for rustbelt cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit where civic leaders could attract global talent if our nation develops an immigration policy that welcomes, rather than rebuffs, foreign investors, innovators, and entrepreneurs.
Over the past weeks, Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee analyzed, criticized and improved the bill originally introduced by the "Gang of Eight." That was, in large part, due to the masterful leadership of Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and his commitment to an open and bipartisan process. Yet as I sat in the Judiciary Committee hearing room I couldn't help but wonder whether the bill's chief opponents, Senators Grassley (R-IA), Sessions (R-AL), Cornyn (R-TX) and Cruz (R-TX) would be so bitterly opposed to its core principles, including a roadmap to citizenship, if they knew the undocumented as individuals, not faceless "illegal aliens." I don't think these senators could help but respect strong women, like "Lenore" who toils day after day cleaning houses and washing dishes so she can give her four U.S. citizen daughters a better life. Or Manuel, a DREAMer, who was brought to the U.S. from Germany as a child, virtually abandoned, and nearly deported six months before his high school graduation. How could anyone not be impressed by the sheer grit, determination and hard work of these aspiring Americans?
The immigration legislation that is now come before the full Senate is a true compromise; it has provisions that will disappoint everyone. Immigration reform advocates will not like the expanded "triggers" which could delay legalization for years. They'll also be disappointed by a narrower, less inclusive, path to citizenship than they'd hoped for, by cuts in family immigration, and by the exclusion of same-sex partners of U.S. citizens and lawful residents. Here in America's heartland that means people like "Steve", an Iraq war veteran who risked his life for the country he loves, will not be able to spend his life with the person he loves.
Yet, while it's far from perfect, the immigration overhaul that now goes to the Senate floor is a good bill. It's the toughest border security measure ever considered by Congress and makes much needed fixes to America's outdated visa system -- including an emphasis on visas for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math graduates. It makes it harder for employers to game the system by requiring electronic verification of employment authorization, and it includes an arduous, but reasonable, road to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the shadows.
Last summer, after President Obama announced a temporary reprieve from deportation for the promising undocumented youth known as DREAMERs, I was asked to explain the process to a group in a rural Ohio town. A young girl sitting in the front row sheepishly raised her hand to ask whether the deferral meant she could apply to college. When I answered yes, I saw something I hadn't seen on an undocumented face in years -- a smile born of hope.
Things are indeed different this time around. America is ready for comprehensive immigration reform.