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Senator Durbin & Local Experts: What's Next for Immigration Reform? (VIDEO)

  ·  Sara McElmurry

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) reflected on his struggles in brokering political compromise around immigration reform at a July 8 panel event co-sponsored by the Latino Policy Forum and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). His candid remarks resonated with an audience of more than 120 Latino community leaders and immigrant advocates, many also wrestling with the reality that supporting a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants means also accepting increased enforcement and southern border militarization.

“[I] just close[d] my eyes and grit my teeth and  vote[d] on more damn money on that border than I could ever possibly explain or rationalize,” said Durbin, reflecting on the concessions necessary to garner the 68 votes that eventually ushered a reform bill out of the Senate on June 27.

A member of the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of 8" and a long-time champion of immigration reform, Durbin co-authored the bill, S744, and negotiated support as it was debated and amended on the Senate floor.

“It was a process of give and take. I got a few things in there I wanted, and I lost a few things, too,” Durbin said, later commenting that his bottom line was simple: “I would not compromise the pathway to citizenship. Period.”

The “pathway to citizenship,” albeit long and winding, is a bright spot in S744, along with the strongest version of the DREAM Act written to date and opportunities for the reunification of families separated by deportation. But the bill also includes a “border surge,” the allocation of billions of dollars for 20,000 new agents and an additional 700 miles of border fence to ostensibly secure an already-secure US-Mexico border. 

“This border is stronger than it’s been … in 40 years. And you say to yourself, ‘so why do they want more?’” said Durbin. “I can’t explain that, other than to say that was the cost and the price of sitting down for negotiation.”

In a Q&A session moderated by Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, the Senator responded to written questions from the audience about S744, including the ongoing deportations and immigration raids, the length of the pathway to citizenship, and strict work requirements and income thresholds that will be required of undocumented families. During the conversation, a small group in the audience held up written protest signs calling for a moratorium on deportations, at one point interjecting that S744 needs to be improved and “is not for poor people.”

“I’ll tell you what’s not for poor people. The current situation is not for poor people,” Durbin responded. “How would you like to be part of the 12 million people undocumented in this country, subject to deportation at any minute, having to work off the books?”

Through his remarks, Durbin stressed that S744 represents progress—not victory—for immigrants and immigrant advocates and that he ultimately remains most concerned about reform surviving the tough negotiations ahead in the House of Representatives.

“You will undoubtedly find things in this bill that you won’t like, and I will too,” Durbin said, later cautioning: “[But] we may never get another chance to pass this.” 

Real-time audience polls revealed a mix of opinions around reform, with strong overall support for preserving the pathway to citizenship and limiting spending at the border as reform discussions advance in the House.

A panel of Chicago-area experts—iincluding representatives from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), the Illinois Latino Family Commission, the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), and a representative from the Latino Policy Forum’s Promotores de Inmigración—took the stage following Durbin’s remarks, their comments echoing mixed feelings about S744 and concern about the road ahead. The conversation was moderated by Fernando Díaz, managing editor of Hoy

“We need to fight to make this a better bill, but also move the process forward,” said Lawrence Benito, executive director of ICIRR.

Benito outlined three possible ways forward for immigration reform in the House: While the House GOP say they will not vote on S744, legislation from a bipartisan House “Gang of 7” or an attempt at piecemeal reform via a series of bills are both strong possibilities.

In any scenario, the pathway to citizenship is a point of contention among many House members—and that troubles both Durbin and the panelists.

“If the House Republicans come back and say we’ll let them [undocumented immigrants] stay here legally but not become citizens, no way,” he said. “Look at France. Look at the countries that try to embed within their population some group that is not a citizens group. It is an invitation for division, an invitation for social disaster.”

The Latino Policy Forum distributed a list of Illinois’ members of the House of Representatives, encouraging audience members to call their representatives and voice support for equitable immigration reform efforts and a pathway to citizenship. LULAC is also organizing its members for in-district meetings.

"Congressman Davis and [Congressman] Roskham, those are our two main targets [for meetings and conversations]," said Maggie Rivera, Illinois District 1 Director and National Treasurer with LULAC. "However, every single congressman on this list that is a Republican is our target. We really need to get in there and talk to them. I truly believe that as community, if we all come together [and] they get continuous visits from different groups that come in there and we all bring the same message, they’re going to feel more at ease ... We can get them to not only support the bill, but come out publicly [with their support] as well as make sure that is voted in October." 

Several panelists spoke to concerns of how to manage an increased demand for legal services, ESL classes, and other immigrant integration services if or when reform becomes a reality. But the panel ended on an optimistic note as Guillermo Mata, a Mexican-born member of the Promotores de Inmigración, reflected on what lies ahead.

“If the legislation doesn’t pass, it’s going to pass eventually. Our kids are growing up, are becoming American citizens, legal residents,” Mata said. “Workers, we are united, we are fighting.  I think if it [legislation] doesn’t pass this time in the House, it is going to pass eventually because we are going to fight to the end.” 

The Latino Policy Forum thanks the University of Illinois at Chicago for hosting the event and Hoy Chicago for providing video. 

Posted In: Immigration, Immigration Reform & Policy