Groups plead for immigration reform

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Congress needs to move ahead with bipartisan immigration reform, a coalition of four Missouri advocacy groups said Tuesday.

The plea came in a conference call to reporters in Missouri even as President Bush mounted a personal effort on Capitol Hill to salvage his derailed immigration bill. The measure, which legalizes up to 12 million unlawful immigrants and tightens border security, stalled last week in the face of broad Republican opposition.

"Everybody admits that the present system is broken," said Donald Emge, director of social ministries for the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese.

He was one of four individuals who discussed the immigration issue in the telephone conference call. Also taking part were Joan Suarez, who chairs the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocate group in St. Louis; Brandon Davis, political director for the Service Employees Union in Missouri; and Yolanda Lorge, director of the Grupo Latino Americano immigrant rights group in Springfield, Mo.

Suarez said advocates of immigration reform want Congress to pass legislation that would allow for reunification of immigrant families, provide a way for illegal immigrants to earn citizenship, protect the civil rights of immigrant workers and secure the nation's borders.

"We need a smart border policy," Suarez said.

Erecting fences along the nation's border with Mexico isn't the answer, she said. "We have been in the business of tearing down walls worldwide. Why in the world would we build them here?" she asked.

Davis said immigration reform needs to include a policy that would provide an opportunity for illegal immigrants who are working in the United States an opportunity to pursue citizenship.

"We feel this will help more than 12 million hard-working immigrants to come out of the shadows," Davis said.

Lorge said immigrant workers are filling jobs most Americans wouldn't take, such as positions in poultry processing plants in southwest Missouri. Hotels and restaurants in the tourist town of Branson, Mo., also depend heavily on immigrant labor, she said.

The diocese's Emge spoke at length about the immigrant issues facing Southeast Missouri in a telephone interview from his Springfield office shortly after participating in the conference call.

Hispanic immigrants can be found from Springfield to Cape Girardeau, he said. Some have settled in the Kennett, Mo., area where migrants traditionally have helped harvest crops. "A fair number of them have green cards," he said, but some are working here illegally.

Illegal or not, some rural, southern Missouri towns wouldn't survive without the labor provided by immigrants, he said.

Some meat processing plants in southwest Missouri rely on a work force that includes illegal immigrants, he said, citing a recent raid in which federal agents arrested more than 100 illegal immigrants working in a turkey processing plant in Butterfield, Mo.

"The sad reality is that our country has always turned to the immigrants for the most dangerous, the dirtiest, the most back-breaking jobs," Emge said.

Ultimately, Congress needs to find an immigration solution that Republicans and Democrats can agree on, he said.

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