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Local leaders discuss immigration in D.C.

Published 10:11am Wednesday, April 17, 2013

While state and federal legislators discuss what rights to give undocumented workers, local residents are speaking out in regional and national platforms about the need for immigration reform this year.

Students, business leaders, community advocates and even former undocumented workers are sharing their stories with government officials in St. Paul and Washington, D.C. ahead of what could be a contentious debate this summer over immigration reform.

“The message is about people, and we really want to show that this is a human issue,” said Jake Vela, executive director of the Welcome Center of Austin.

Vela joined Father Dale Tupper, former Austin mayor Bonnie Rietz, Riverland Community College adviser Miguel Garate and Hormel Foods Corp. CEO Jeff Ettinger in speaking with U.S. legislators and White House staff on March 13. The trip, organized by Ettinger, focused on the impact immigration reform has on communities like Austin.

“This trip provided the opportunity for Hormel Foods and Austin community leaders to come together with policy makers at the forefront of this discussion,” Ettinger said in a statement.

“We had the opportunity to meet with several Minnesota legislators and other officials that are actively working on immigration reform. They were very interested in hearing our perspective, and it was important to have broad representation of the entire Austin community there to discuss it with them.”

The group spoke with Reps. Tim Walz and Collin Peterson, Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Al Franken, Dick Durbin, and staff for the White House and Sen. Jeff Flake. Durbin and Flake are members of the so-called Committee of 8 who are writing a bill proposing stark changes to U.S. immigration policy, including a much-talked about path to citizenship, which could create ways for more than 11 million undocumented workers in the nation to become U.S. citizens.

Each community leader discussed how immigration reform could affect undocumented workers, from the business impact losing workers could have on manufacturing to the positive economic impact undocumented workers have on an area, to the fear undocumented workers face doing simple tasks such as driving.

Rietz knows the issue is especially pertinent in Austin, where many residents have argued for and against immigration reform for years.

“When I was mayor, it was so frustrating when immigration issues would come up,” she said. “We try to do what we can locally, to introduce them to our community, to help them with education … it was so frustrating because the immigration issue is a federal issue that needs to be done.”

For Garate, the issue is personal. He became a U.S. citizen in 2001, though he first came to Austin in the late ‘90s.

“I know that feeling, to live in the shadows,” said Garate. “But for someone to turn on that light for you, your life changes for the best.”

Though he was born in Mexico, Garate calls the U.S. his country, and he said many local residents who are here legally or otherwise feel the same. He spoke of several undocumented residents who wanted to become doctors, accountants, even join the U.S. Air Force to give back to the country.

Several local community college students feel the same about immigration reform, as Riverland students went to St. Paul on April 2 for Latino Advocacy Day, an annual event where students and community activists come to discuss Latino- and college-related issues with legislators.

Yet several students like Maria Medina spoke to area legislators about immigration issues.

“We just went into their office, and we tried to see where their stance was on the DREAM Act, the Minnesota Prosperity Act,” and other things, Medina said.

The Minnesota Prosperity Act, which would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, is one of several immigration-related bills to come before legislators this session. Medina spoke to Rep. Jeanne Poppe and Sen. Dan Sparks, both DFL-Austin, about setting up driver’s licenses for undocumented residents, something Minnesota and several other states are considering.

Sparks said last week legislators will continue to study and discuss these issues before making a decision.

Federal legislators told Rietz, Vela, Ettinger, Tupper and Garate an immigration reform bill would likely come before Congress this summer, after the federal budget is settled. Until that’s settled, local leaders and residents will continue to deal with the local ramifications of a national issue.

“That issue with the documentation simply has to be taken care of,” Rietz said.

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