Forum in San Luis Obispo focuses on finding legal means for immigration

The majority of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States today didn’t decide to uproot their families and move here on a whim, one Central Coast immigration expert said this week.

“The vast overwhelming number came to the U.S. because there was work here and they needed work,” said Maricela Morales, the deputy executive director of the Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which is working to build an immigration reform task force on the Central Coast. “You don’t risk your life or the life of your child because you hear there is welfare on the other side of the line.”

Morales was one of four panelists at a forum Wednesday night on immigration reform hosted by the Latino Outreach Council in San Luis Obispo. The organization plans to hold two more forums later this year on health-care reform and gang-related issues.

The roughly 50 people in attendance at the County Government Center learned about U.S. immigration reform efforts stretching back two centuries, and about recent failed efforts to fix a system that many immigrants see as broken.

The forum was focused on reform and ways to create a path to legalizing the status of illegal immigrants. The views expressed Wednesday were in stark contrast to those held by many conservative Republicans.

Some prominent conservatives remain hostile to any efforts to grant legal status, arguing that such moves provide a form of amnesty that rewards illegal behavior, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday.

Still, a new report on voter attitudes in two states found Republican voters are open to an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system, according to the Times. The report found that GOP voters want any immigration reform plan to include tougher security on the borders, while barring undocumented immigrants from receiving welfare or other government benefits.

CAUSE advocates five steps that should be included in any reform, including an accelerated process for farm workers and minors, and a method to address the legal future flow of immigrants.

“As long as we have jobs that rely on immigrant labor … we need a mechanism for them to come here on a legal means,” Morales said.

While local immigration experts are cautiously optimistic that reform could happen later this year, past efforts have taught them not to place any bets on it.

Several panelists argued that granting citizenship to illegal immigrants would significantly boost their earning potential, which would increase the amount of taxes they pay as well other financial contributions to the U.S. economy.

According to the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, if illegal immigrants are granted legal status in 2013 and citizenship five years thereafter, the 10-year cumulative increase in U.S. gross domestic product would be $1.1 trillion, and the reform would create 159,000 jobs per year.

“California’s involvement is critical because we’re home to about one-fourth of the nations undocumented workers,” said Ruth Jensen, a government affairs specialist at United Agribusiness League, who has helped work on reform efforts for nearly a decade. The association supports agriculture and has more than 1,100 agricultural employers and more than 25 agricultural trade associations.

She outlined problems with the nation’s guest worker program, H-2A, which allows agricultural employers to hire migrant workers, but which some employers say is expensive and tedious.

The program supplies about 2 percent, or 30,000 farm workers, out of a total work force of 1.6 million, she said. There are about 325,000 farm workers in California.

“It doesn’t work,” Jensen said.

She worked on bipartisan legislation known as AgJobs, which sought to provide agricultural employers with a stable labor force while protecting rights and opportunities for immigrant workers. The federal legislation failed in July 2007.

“We argued that food is a national security issue — we feed the world,” Jensen said. “There’s nothing worse than having a farm and needing to pick and you have no workers.”

Another panelist, Paso Robles immigration attorney Kevin Gregg, said that for the majority of illegal immigrants living in the country, “there is no path” for them to become legal residents and citizens.

Past reform efforts, including toughening of immigration laws in the mid-1990s, created new punishments for certain violations and eliminated pardons of previous violations.

Other laws have made it more difficult for people to apply for green cards, and bar anyone living in America illegally for more than a year from returning for 10 years.

That creates a situation, Gregg said, where people didn’t want to leave the country, but didn’t have a way to file for legal status.

“It kind of creates this purgatory … and the undocumented in the U.S. started to grow,” he said. “At the same time, there was an increased focus on deportations and enforcement, so the number of people being placed in immigration court grew, but the number of prosecuting attorneys and judges did not.”

There are currently more than 325,000 cases in immigration court, and only 273 immigration judges to hear them.

Another speaker, Joseph Castro, shared comments he’d heard from migrant workers during a listening session held with representatives from the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., last year.

“Many companies have work but won’t hire without documents,” said Castro, the grandson of migrant farm workers and vice president of the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association board. He also coordinates services for about 2,000 families statewide in the federal Migrant Head Start program through the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County.

“There’s exploitation … they’re underpaid for labor, there’s a lack of a labor force due to fear and risk and growers are concerned and losing harvests,” he added.

At the listening session, migrant workers said they came to the U.S. to work and participate in society.

“There’s a need for immigration reform,” Castro added. “That’s pretty clear.”