State’s Latino advocates not enthused about immigration proposal

Washington — Connecticut’s U.S. senators are supportive of a new bipartisan proposal on immigration, but Connecticut’s Latino advocates, not so much.

“The blueprint is a major breakthrough,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “We need immigration reform, not only for the sake of individuals and families who are here, but also for the country.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., called the proposal “a breath of fresh air in a debate that has been too toxic for too long.”

“I’m especially encouraged by the bipartisan approach — it’s a very positive step toward solving one of the biggest challenges of our time,” he said.

A group of four Republican senators and four Democratic senators — these include John McCain, R-Ariz., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. — released a proposal Monday that would provide a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Rolled out a day before President Obama releases his plan, the senators’ proposal calls for tighter border enforcement, a new guest worker program and requirements for employers to verify workers’ immigration status.

The “tough but fair” path to citizenship for undocumented aliens includes passing a background check and “settling their debt to society” by paying a fine and back taxes. That would give an immigrant probationary legal status with a chance to apply for residency after Congress determines borders are secure.

John Jairo Lugo, an immigration advocate with New Haven’s Unidad Latina en Accion, said the compromise is short on carrot and long on stick.

“We should not accept a bill that has a lot of conditions,” he said Monday afternoon.

One concern is the proposed fine. The last time a comprehensive bill was considered in Congress, which was in 2006, it required immigrants to pay thousands of dollars in fines. Many undocumented workers can’t afford that, Lugo said.

“If you want to be serious about this, it should not have so many hurdles,” he said.

Anthony Collins, an immigration lawyer in Wethersfield, said he’s “a little bit hesitant” to endorse the plan. One worry is how his clients would estimate the back taxes they might owe.

“It’s extremely difficult for people to calculate them,” Collins said. “(Congress) has to be realistic.”

Kurt Westby, Connecticut district leader for Service Employees International Union local 32BJ, called the proposal “a good start, but we need something better.”

“But it’s refreshing to see both sides working together,” he added.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a fervent activist for immigration reform in Congress, warned Latino advocates against slowing what he says is new momentum toward immigration reform.

“The most important thing right now is to keep the various efforts moving forward and not to draw lines in the sand,” he said.

The compromise must to be turned into legislation, and it’s likely to be altered several times before a final vote.

It’s largely a result of the November election, which changed the dynamics of the Republican Party. About 70 percent of the nation’s Latinos voted for Obama in November, helping him win the White House.

Meanwhile, the GOP had been running on a tough-on-immigration platform. Realizing how badly the loss of Latino voters hurt the party, both in the presidential race and in several Senate contests, many Republicans, like McCain and Rubio, want to get the divisive issue of immigration behind them.

“We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours, for a variety of reasons, and we’ve got to understand that,” McCain told ABC’s “This Week.”

Other Republicans, however, continue to reject anything they consider “amnesty.”

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said “by granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration.”

NumbersUSA, a group seeking to reduce U.S. immigration, said it would activate its 1.3 million members to push for congressional opposition.

But Blumenthal is optimistic that comprehensive immigration reform will be approved by the Senate.

“The last election shows there are political consequences to supporting immigration reform — and to blocking it,” he said.