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September 23, 2021

35 years is long enough for immigration reform

By Manuel Perez and Luis A. Alejo 

Jan. 20 will mark a significant day, not only for the United States as Joe Biden is sworn in as our 46th President but also for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in our country. They have been waiting for decades for comprehensive immigration reform. President-elect Biden promised that during his first 100 days, he will submit an immigration reform proposal to Congress. That moment couldn’t come soon enough. 

Nov. 6, 2021 will mark 35 years since President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. The bipartisan legislation was led by Senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyoming) and Congressmember Romano Mazzoli (D-Kentucky), who both chaired the immigration subcommittees in each respective house. The landmark bill ultimately gave amnesty to an estimated 2.7 million immigrants and has been the most impactful piece of legislation for immigrants and their families in nearly a century. 

During the bill signing ceremony, President Reagan stated, “The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society. Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight, and ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.”

But Congress has failed to reach agreement on a new proposal in the following decades, despite numerous attempts. Shortly after the November general election, President-elect Biden promised to change that. He declared, “I made a commitment, in the first 100 days, I will send an immigration bill to the United States Senate with a pathway to citizenship for over 11 million undocumented people in America.”  

These words immediately brought hope to millions of undocumented immigrants and their children who continue to live in the shadows, just as Reagan described decades ago.

But achieving passage of an immigration bill will certainly take an enormous amount of negotiation, and strong political will from both Republican and Democratic legislators, something that has been absent for many years in Washington, D.C.  

And full support from Democrats cannot be assumed either. In fact, many Democrats could not come to agreement on immigration reform during President Barack Obama’s first term, even when they controlled the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate and the White House. Democrats must not repeat that embarrassing error during the incoming Biden Administration. We will certainly once again require bipartisan leadership to reach the requisite number of votes in both houses of Congress, just as bipartisanship was required in 1986. 

But the outcome of the two recent Georgia runoff elections for the U.S. Senate will certainly be a game changer to get any legislation through both houses of Congress. 

Serving in local government as county supervisors, we see first-hand each day the struggles of hard-working immigrants in industries like agriculture, hospitality, restaurants, and construction. Our immigrant workers are among those hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly one in four undocumented persons today reside in California. 

People who are undocumented don’t qualify for critically needed health insurance nor did they receive the $1200 direct payment under the federal CARES relief package. Small businesses owned by undocumented immigrants did not qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or the Small Business Administration Disaster Relief Loans.  

Many immigrants feared seeking testing or government services especially after President Donald Trump continually targeted and demonized these communities. Yet, nearly 69% of undocumented immigrant workers perform jobs that we have deemed “essential” in fighting COVID, according to FWD.US

This pandemic continues to remind us that legalization is not only critical to improve the lives of these immigrant workers, businesses and families, but also to curb the effects of the pandemic. 

For decades, many Americans have been ready for a bipartisan solution to our immigration issues, including our agriculture, tech, labor, religious, business and law enforcement leaders.  

Come Inauguration Day, it will be up to President-elect Biden and Congress to find the determination necessary to put aside partisan gridlock, and do what is long overdue for our nation. 

Manuel Perez is a Riverside County Supervisor and the President of the Latino Caucus of California Counties. Luis A. Alejo is a Monterey County Supervisor and a Past President of the Latino Caucus of California Counties.

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