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Immigrants weigh possible impact of new legislation


LOS ANGELES » In another era, Justino Mora might have been ashamed to talk about his mother’s coming across the border from Mexico illegally. But today he calls her decision to immigrate to the suburbs here more than a decade ago heroic.

When Mora, a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, received authorization to live and work in the United States late last year as part of the Obama administration’s plan to grant reprieves to young people who were brought into the country by their parents, he anxiously wondered whether his mother would ever receive the same benefits. Now, he said, there is a powerful sense of hope.

With the bipartisan group of eight senators having introduced a sweeping immigration bill in Washington this week, immigrants across the country are paying close attention to how the legislation might change their lives. They spoke with guarded optimism at the prospect of the proposal becoming law, enabling people who have lived here for decades without authorization to travel and work legally.

"We’ve all been living in fear, every day, but now people are finally starting to realize that every family like mine is part of this society and part of the fabric," said Mora, 23. "Every family that comes here comes here with courage. We want the sense of security that comes with knowing we will not have to be separated."

Since they received legal authorization last year, Mora and his younger brother have both received Social Security cards and driver’s licenses. His older sister’s paperwork, however, has not gone through, leaving her in a kind of legal limbo — she is worried she may lose her job as a secretary as soon as this week because she has not been able to show she is legally allowed to work.

"It’s no way to live," Mora said, "but that is the life many people have."

Many of the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States work in low-wage jobs all over the country, making beds in hotels, cleaning tables in restaurants or laying brick at construction sites. As the details of the bill were released Tuesday, many reacted with hopefulness that legal authorization would allow them to make more money, escaping jobs that can pay less than minimum wage.

At the same time, however, they worried that they would never be able to scrape together enough money to pay the taxes and fees they would need to receive legal residency.

At a day-laborer site in North Phoenix on Tuesday, Jose Dominguez huddled under a tree with two other men, assessing their chances at legal status, wondering aloud whether they could assemble the necessary paperwork to prove they have lived in the United States long enough and paid enough taxes to qualify, even though they work in a business that deals almost entirely in cash.

For Luiz Alberto Herrera, 38, who left his native northern Mexico nine years ago, money may be the greatest obstacle to becoming a citizen.

"You live day by day" as a day laborer, he said. "How I’m going to be able to save to straighten up my paperwork, I don’t know."

Herrera and Dominguez, 50, a day laborer from Michoacan, Mexico, recently spoke to a lawyer about what they might face under the new proposal to become legal residents. "Patience," Dominguez said, was the advice he received from the lawyer.

Indeed, any legislation is likely to produce a legal labyrinth, and immigration lawyers are already gearing up for more business. Charles Kuck, an immigration lawyer in Atlanta, said he expected to hire more legal staff members to handle the crush of new clients he anticipates.

For the past several months, Kuck has spoken to Latino groups throughout Georgia, advising them what kind of impact a new immigration law could have. He has cautioned them that the process could take months or even years, but that they should begin assembling files of tax records and marriage licenses.

"What they really want is the ability to be legal," he said. "What most people really want is just the ability to drive without fear, to live without fear."

Like others who immigrated illegally, Maria Galvan speaks of living in the shadows, like a ghost that does not want to be seen. In recent months, however, Galvan, who came from Mexico City to the San Fernando Valley 13 years ago, has felt emboldened. Last week she traveled to a large rally in Washington and made calls to members of Congress, demanding a new immigration law.

"It used to be that we had no power, but we have worked very hard and we want the respect we deserve," said Galvan, 43. She spoke longingly of wanting to go back to Mexico to see nieces and nephews whom she has never met and who are now teenagers. "We all have dreams we’ve been holding on to for a long time."

For all the excitement, for many the promise of legalization was tinged with disappointment — both at the length of the 13-year path to full citizenship and because the legislation will leave out anyone who arrived after Dec. 30, 2011.

John Acosta, a Colombian who has lived in North Miami since 1995, said that while he agreed with the proposals to tighten border security, the cutoff would create "another new problem."

Santos Canelas has had a legal work permit since the 1980s but is eager to make his status permanent. While he believes he will be able to meet any requirements for citizenship, he expects that many other immigrants will not.

"It’s like a funnel," he said. "They’re putting us all through a funnel, and those that are able to pay and persist will make it through, but others won’t."

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