The Senate might not be ready for the immigration bill, but Idaho is

Many think of Mexican farm labor when it comes to the implications of any legislation redefining immigration law. But there's also a vast middle class of prosperous business people, and some of them waded across the Rio Grande to get here – like Martin Rodriguez, who today is a voting citizen.
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Martin Rodriguez, voter, businessman, former undocumented alien.

Many think of Mexican farm labor when it comes to the implications of any legislation redefining immigration law. But there's also a vast middle class of prosperous business people, and some of them waded across the Rio Grande to get here – like Martin Rodriguez, who today is a voting citizen.

Nampa, Idaho, businessman Chris Veloz had a bit of a shocker at last week's Idaho Hispanic Chamber of Commerce inaugural gala. His friend, Martin Rodriguez, a Meridian, Idaho, Realtor, revealed in casual conversation that he had come to this country "the way most Mexicans do." He snuck across the border. But that was way back in 1984, two kids, two careers, and one amnestía ago. The U.S. Senate is trying to make immigration lemonade from a bunch of really sour lemons. Lemons rotting on the trees. Lemons squeezed into open wounds. Bruised fruit being hurled from AM radio bunkers. (Update 6/28/2007: The immigration bill is likely dead until after the 2008 elections.) Meanwhile, Idaho's Hispanic business elite is getting down to business. Veloz, Rodriguez, and 200 other Idaho entrepreneurs – about half of them immigrants to the United States – spent an evening last week spooning flan at the Hispanic Cultural Center in Nampa. The newly formed business group has cemented more than $100,000 in pledges from banks, insurance companies, and dozens of small businesses for scholarships, business development services, and business loans. Veloz, a Nampa planning and zoning commissioner originally from Nebraska, had known Rodriguez for a few years, but they never discussed how he came to the U.S. "I meet people all the time and I don't really ask where they're from," Veloz told me by phone after the event. "I don't condone people coming over here illegally, but they are here to work." Veloz believes in trickle-down economics and the rule of law. But when confronted with a guy like Rodriguez at a gala affair, his politics are more complicated. "If you're here to work and you're being productive maybe you're OK," Veloz said. Who is OK and who is not OK is at the root of today's conflict on immigration. The bill that is before senators this week says that foreign scientists and nurses and computer programmers are best. Fruit pickers and sheep herders are OK if they don't stay too long. The immigrant working poor; framers, landscapers, laborers, less OK. Brothers and cousins of immigrants, not so OK anymore. It says a bunch of times that terrorists and drug dealers are not OK. For Idaho and much of the west, the compromise bill that made a baby step toward Senate passage Tuesday, June 26, contains lots of verbiage on farm work, once the main occupation of immigrants here. Small farm towns across Idaho had their labor camps and every summer the populations of Idaho's rural counties swelled, the sounds of accordions from the borderlands filling the evening air. It was a "basic workforce who can stoop over and pick up things" as Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, put it to me. Much of that workforce, as Craig rightly pointed out, had higher aspirations. Many became equipment operators and foremen. Rodriguez, who met me for coffee last week, jay walked the Rio Grande in 1984 fresh out of university. He wanted to make $10,000 to buy an apartment in Mexico City. Two years later, Ronald Reagan signed off on a major legalization program and Rodriguez and his wife, who had followed him across the border, qualified. "If we live here and try to be good citizens, I think we deserve the chance to apply for amnesty," he says. Rodriguez went from stooping in the fields to cleaning hotels and then managing hotels and restaurants. Now he sells houses to a largely Mexican clientele in the greater Boise area. Mexican immigrants in Idaho have swapped labor camps for subdivisions and are increasingly viewed as a vast untapped market with growing "buying power." That explains the number of bankers who jumped on board with the Hispanic Chamber. And those bankers must know that a lot of that buying and borrowing is being done by the 12 million strong population of unauthorized migrants. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that in the past 10 years, 80 percent to 85 percent of migrants from Mexico have entered the country illegally. This group of Américans in immigration limbo stands to gain the most from so-called Comprehensive Immigration Reform. But that word, "amnesty" – Sam Byrd, the CEO of the new Hispanic Chamber calls it a "word bomb" – is largely to blame for holding up congressional action on immigration for two years or longer. There is vehement resistance to the idea that someone who crossed illegally into the country would benefit from the act. In Spanish it is amnestía, and not a bad word at all. Immigrant advocates and Republicans who want to vote for it call it legalization, or earned legalization. But whatever we call it, it is the most essential part of immigration reform and the section of the thick bill that keeps getting diluted in the name of political expediency. The American Immigration Lawyers Association has a good summary of the bill that was written prior to some of the more recent amendments and more recent details, which can be found here. "A very high number of my constituents believe that illegal immigration should not be tolerated or incentivized," said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, who voted with the minority Tuesday to block the immigration bill's advance. Crapo said he likes the temporary worker provisions in the bill, called the Y visa, and that he would like to see the country's 12 million undocumented workers transitioned into a temporary worker program rather than legalized. He is opposing the immigration bill because of the legalization provisions and agrees with many of his constituents that illegal immigration is putting an undue burden on things like health care and roads. Craig, whose AgJobs plan, now part of the larger immigration bill, would give undocumented farm workers a chance at gaining legal status and make it easier for growers to hire temporary workers, is supporting the Senate bill. Besides his own provisions, Craig likes a portion of the bill that emphasizes merit – educational attainment and job class – over family ties for immigration purposes. "It is amazing to me that coming to America opens the door for you to bring your whole family, meaning your whole generational family," Craig said. "I support stopping what we call chain migration." Our immigration system has been weighted on familial ties since 1965 and arguably for much longer and this sea change in the nation's immigration priorities embedded in the bill has not been widely debated. I would be writing this in Ukrainian or probably Yiddish if it were not for 19th century-style family immigration. There are lots of other bits in the immigration bill that deserve more attention: a nationwide employee screening system, a series of conditions that must be met before immigrants can apply for the new immigration statuses, worker protections, a brief clause that declares English a language, perhaps the language, whatever that means. And the bill does nothing to address the pressures that free trade in the hemisphere has put on workers south of the border. "If we want a seamless economy then we've got to have seamless borders, we can't have our cake and eat it too," said Maria Mabbutt, a longtime farm worker advocate from Nampa. The seamless border that already exists has given people like Martin Rodriguez, now a voting U.S. citizen, a head start on a global economy. "Most of my clients are Hispanic," Rodriguez said. "I don't have too much competition." But even that is changing. Mabbutt was amazed at the turnout for the Hispanic Chamber's gala event. "It's the first event since I've been in Idaho that is full to capacity," she said. "Full of middle class Latinos."


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