Immigration Reform: Activists Look to Obama for New Policies

Article excerpt

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By 8 a.m. it is standing room only at the CASA de Maryland workers' center in Rockville, Md., where nearly 80 people have gathered since the early morning in search of manual labor jobs in carpentry, construction, moving and painting. A labor organizer is speaking to the group in Spanish, going over rules and offering information on the economy and current events.

She plays an English-language learning tape as workers--mostly young and middle-aged men--wait to be matched with employers based on their qualifications. If selected, the skilled laborers hired for plumbing and carpentry work will earn around $15 per hour, while unskilled workers hired for demolition, painting and moving jobs receive about $10 per hour.

But winter is a slow season at the center, according to staff, and the economy isn't helping the situation. Some will walk away without work and return the next day.

Many in the immigrant community are hoping the policies of the new administration will mark a change for the better--an improved economy, more jobs and an end to workplace raids. A year ago, said CASA de Maryland spokesman Mario Quiroz, people were talking about going back home, while the general attitude now is "wait and see."

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"We hope that, at least, the government comes out with something that can bring out of the shadows more than 12 million people that are in this situation," Quiroz said.

Juan Emerson has been waiting at the Center since 6:30 a.m., looking for work as a mover or landscaper. Speaking in Spanish with Quiroz translating, the 23-year-old from E1 Salvador explained his decision to come to the United States six months ago in search of work. He was studying computer engineering in college but his parents were struggling to finance his education as well as his sister's, so he came here to earn money and help them out. Although there are many opportunities in this country, he's finding it difficult to secure work without papers.

During his campaign, President Barack Obama vowed to fix the immigration system and make it a top priority, offering a solution that includes securing U.S. borders, "cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers" and facilitating the transition to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in good standing. But Obama has been silent on the issue since taking office last month.

Quiroz said nearly 70 percent of Hispanic voters supported Obama in the November election, an indication the community sees him as someone who will bring needed reform to the immigration system. And they're optimistic about his choice of former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano as Secretary of Homeland Security, parent department of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

The hope and enthusiasm for the Obama administration was evident Jan. 21, when several hundred people from across the country held a peaceful protest outside U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Washington, calling for immigration reform, humane treatment and an end to workplace raids. Alternating between English and Spanish, the protesters chanted "Stop the raids--yes we can!" and "Si se puede!" to the beat of drums, waving signs that read "I am immigrant America" and unfolding a large U.S. flag that billowed in the wind.

The rally was intended to "cleanse ICE of eight years of repressive politics" on the first day of the new administration, according to a press release issued by organizers, and was one of several demonstrations planned at detention offices and municipal buildings across the country.

A Pew Hispanic Center report released in October estimated there were 11.9 million unauthorized immigrants--4 percent of the nation's population--living in the United States in March 2008. According to the study, the number of unauthorized immigrants entering the country reached an average high of 800,000 per year from 2000 to 2004, but has been steadily decreasing since then, averaging 500,000 per year from 2005 to 2008. …