Connecticut advocates looking to Congress for immigration reform

Washington -- As Congress begins a historic debate on immigration, Connecticut advocates are trying to determine how it will affect 120,000 or more undocumented workers in the state.

Congress' decision to move on a comprehensive bill will test the skills of the new Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance, a coalition of about 15 groups formed in February.

Yanil Teron, executive director of the Hartford-based Center for Latino Progress, a coalition member, said immigration advocates consider a bill introduced in the Senate last week as "very positive."

"But we are still trying to digest all the parts," she said.

Crafted by a Senate bipartisan "Gang of Eight," the bill would tighten border security, overhaul the visa system and crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers.

It would also provide a way to legal status, and eventually citizenship, for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. A study by the Pew Hispanic Center that used 2010 U.S. Census data determined there were about 120,000 undocumented immigrants living in Connecticut.

But the massive 844-page bill is subject to changes by an unpredictable Senate. And the House is taking a separate, piecemeal approach to immigration so no one knows what a final bill will look like.

After a post-mortem of that election, GOP advisers who are concerned about a growing Hispanic electorate urged Republican leaders to abandon their hard-line stance against immigration reform and do something to help undocumented immigrants.

"The political ingredients are there to pass a bill this year, unlike the last seven or eight years. ... The last election confronted the Republicans with an existential threat that if they didn't change their position they would end up a permanent minority party," said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2ndDistrict.

Republican dissent

But not all Republicans are on board.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the "Gang of Eight" that drafted the bill, has been battling conservatives in his party who say the bill would unfairly reward those who broke the immigration law.

Rubio has repeatedly said the bill does not provide the undocumented with an amnesty.

"We have an immigration system that's not good for this country, it's very bad for this country, and it needs to be fixed," Rubio said  recently.  "I can tell you, leaving it the way it is right now is crazy."

After the Boston marathon bombings, some GOP lawmakers said the immigration bill would allow more immigrants like the Russian-born alleged bombers to enter the country.

"The protestations of the sponsors of this bill, that we're going to be a lot safer if the new bill is passed, I think is incorrect," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

But most Democrats, like Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, are supportive of the effort. He said it "looks like the kind of legislation" that provides a balanced approach between tougher enforcement of immigration law and a chance for the undocumented to obtain legal status.

"There are thousands of undocumented immigrants in Connecticut whose status has been in limbo for years," Murphy said.

While the Senate bill would provide a path to citizenship, the road is long and somewhat rocky.

Becoming a U.S. citizen would take at least 13 years and would require applicants to pay fines and taxes, learn English, undergo a criminal background check and wait to begin their journey until new border security initiatives are underway.

Teron said some immigrant advocates are dismayed the bill would provide billions of dollars to build new border fences, create a computerized visa-monitoring system and an 'e-verify' system that would allow employers to screen for undocumented job applicants -- but has no money for programs that would help immigrants  apply for probationary legal status.

Requirements include paying a  $500 fine and an unspecified amount of money in fees as well as any back taxes owed for the past six years. Only immigrants who arrived in the United States on or before Dec. 31, 2011, would be allowed to apply for a change of status.

Some issues unaddressed

Teron said she fears that immigrants will fall prey to unscrupulous lawyers and "notarios," or self-styled immigration consultants who use false advertising and fraudulent contracts to bilk immigrants of their money.

"The bill is not addressing those issues at all," Teron said.

Even so, the bill provides immigration activists with the thing they most wanted -- a way to legalize the undocumented.

"Some of these people have been here for decades," said Jessica Ramos, spokeswoman for 32BJ Services Employees International Union, another member of the immigration coalition.

Ramos said the legalization of thousands of immigrants in Connecticut would result in safer workplaces and higher wages for low-skilled workers in the state. Right now, undocumented workers are making very low wages, and Ramos said "whoever makes the least amount of money will set the industry standard."

The bill also would help the economy because undocumented immigrants would be able to purchase homes and make other investments in the community, Ramos said.

Meanwhile, Ramos said, the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance, which held rallies earlier this month in Hartford, Stamford, Bridgeport and other Connecticut cities, will closely monitor the legislation's progress.

"We're really all in right now," Ramos said. "We'll be making noise."

Connecticut's all-Democratic congressional delegation is expected to support immigration reform.

But members of the delegation may want to change some elements of the bill and embrace others.

"The bill as written incorporates  the approach that I've urged, which is to expand the numbers of high-skilled visas so important for Connecticut," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

He also said "we are at a rare, critical moment in history that we need to seize."

"I believe the Congress will take advantage of the coming together, the confluence of political forces that favor immigration reform," Blumenthal said.