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Nation's newest immigrants seek own pathway
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Nation's newest immigrants seek own pathway

  • The border wall in Nogales.
    Rebekah Zemansky/TucsonSentinel.comThe border wall in Nogales.

Historically, there has always been a sort of hazing process initiating new immigrants into this country. Just look at how poorly we treated the Irish, the Italians, the Poles, the Chinese and other newcomers as they worked to overcome prejudice and eventually earn acceptance as U.S. citizens.

But unlike past immigrant experiences in the United States, for many Latino immigrants the traditional hazing has been nonstop because pariah-centric politics drown out any possibility for pragmatic policy in regard to official legitimacy.

The result: "The American Journey" and "the pathway to citizenship" became parallel roads with little to no chance of ever intersecting.

No papers mean no progress.

No progress means a perpetual state of hazing, which traditionally is accompanied by demonization, myths, fear and prejudice, as we've seen in recent years.

For the flood of Latino immigrants who came to the United States in recent decades, the pathway to citizenship would not be a 3- to 5-hour process through Ellis Island with its near-guarantee acceptance rate of 98 percent.

There is no Statue of Liberty in Nogales, Ariz., beckoning: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Instead, there is a wall. There are patrols. There are politics.

But before that, however, for more than 100 years there was a rather porous U.S.-Mexico border with immigrant labor going back and forth without too much bother, notice or consequence. There was a need for cheap labor here, especially in agriculture, construction, restaurants, landscaping and housekeeping. And immigrant labor, largely Latino and mostly Mexicans, provided it.

There was an unspoken verbal contract of sorts that essentially welcomed the undocumented worker, who was good for the economy on many levels. And so, in a nation that continued to figuratively and literally be built by immigrants, the Latino undocumented immigrant embraced the American Dream, even was in its most nebulous form.

The pathway to citizenship for many Latino immigrants has remained elusive. But the American journey continues to be more of an ethereal experience, based in everyday reality and everyman aspirations: They work hard, pay their bills, raise their families, contribute to our economy and salute our flag; many serve in the U.S. military.

Yet while they may be U.S. residents, they are not U.S. citizens. It doesn't matter if they've lived here five years or 50 years, deportation is always a looming fear.

So, why immigration reform now?

First of all, as a nation – and one would hope as a state – we've moved beyond Arizona SB 1070 immigration hysteria. What wasn't deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court was deemed unenforceable by the Obama administration, as well as by most law enforcement agencies that preferred to focus on local crime, not broken national immigration policy.

Ironically, Arizona's SB1070 has helped forward comprehensive immigration reform.

The fact is, we can't "arrest them all" – not even for the smallest of infractions, such as broken car tail light. We can't "deport them all" either. And no, they will not "self deport" if we just try to making the hazing even more harsh and hideous.

For all intents and purposes, they are Americans but without the official designation.

The reason for immigration reform now is that we've tried just about everything but practical and pragmatic solutions for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who have proven to be trustworthy American residents. But again, as the increase in the number of deportations in recent years attest, U.S. residency is not the same as U.S. citizenship.

That is why we have a bipartisan framework from Senate leaders – including Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans – that calls for a series of sensible solutions to finally pave the way for a pathway to citizenship:

A background check so real criminals are not granted citizenship.

Payment of back taxes. To be an American is to pay taxes; no free rides.

Securing our southern border via increased enforcement (even though illegal immigration is at net zero in Arizona), a prerequisite for many hardliners such as Governor Jan Brewer. Think drones and even more Border Patrol and monitoring gadgets.

Improved infrastructure to our immigration system, ensuring a fair and efficient system for all, along with fraud prevention.

Employer verification to thwart under-the-table hirings, which only perpetuate the illegal immigration syndrome.

A guest worker program, acknowledging the fact many undocumented workers just want to work here, not live here (a dynamic made increasingly difficult with tightened border security, prompting whole families to just move here).

Of course, we've been here before, on the front step of comprehensive immigration reform, and we watched it unravel. Details have to be worked out. There will be resistance.

So, what makes this time different?

"The election," as McCain so honestly answered at a news conference.

He might also have added "the humanity," "the economy" and "right thing to do," as many religious organizations, business leaders, civil rights groups and other members of Senate group have said.

The fact is, Latinos are the fast-growing population in the nation and the largest ethnic minority group, although they are far from monolithic.

Historically speaking, Latinos have always been part of the fabric that makes up the American tapestry – and will continue to be so in the future, only on much greater thread.

Latinos are a young population: The median age for Whites in Arizona is 44; for Latinos, it's 26, prime child-bearing years.

Latinos are largely a "legal population," and will be even more so in the future: Virtually all Latino children 5 and younger in Arizona are U.S. citizens.

Perhaps within the next two decades, Arizona will be a minority-majority state, meaning there will be more ethnic minorities than Whites. The United States is not far behind in those changing demographics, as Latinos continue to move into all 50 states.

For all politicians of both parties, there is new-found incentive and urgency to finally end the hazing. They're called voters.

For most Latino voters, as the 2012 election showed, hardline anti-immigrant rhetoric is viewed as anti-Latino. For many other voters, there is a sense of enough is enough with the shadow treatment: The undocumented immigrant has paid his or her dues and should be welcomed into the club.

It appears, perhaps, that the American Latino Experience finally will become one with the American Experience, as traditionally has been our nation's history and strength, with immigrants from lands both distant and near advancing together on our country's destiny road.

The path to citizenship may have been different for this newest group of immigrants, but in the end – or should we say the beginning – they will simply be like all immigrants before: Americans.

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

The director of communications for the Morrison Institute of Public Policy at ASU, Garcia is a longtime, award-winning journalist whose experience as a top editor, columnist and reporter included positions at The Arizona Republic, The Daily Times, Tucson Citizen, USA Today and The Associated Press.

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