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Franken: ‘We have a broken immigration system’

Published 5:05pm Saturday, May 4, 2013

As the U.S. Senate prepares to tackle comprehensive immigration reform this summer, activists and experts in southern Minnesota are already speaking out.

More than 20 activists and leaders from all over the southeast part of the state held a meeting with U.S. Sen. Al Franken Saturday morning at Queen of Angels Catholic Church, sharing their thoughts and suggestions with the Senator. Many are excited for the coming legislative session as pundits and officials say reform is closer than ever before.

“Finally, it looks like something will get done,” said Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm.

A bipartisan group of eight Senators unveiled comprehensive legislation last month designed to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents who came to the U.S. before 2012 and had stayed in the country continuously, among other provisions. For many, the bill leaves much to be desired, as undocumented residents would have to wait for years to graduate from provisional to full legal status, in addition to other potential complications. The bill also provides funding for increased border security in states like Arizona and New Mexico, and legislators say the bill aims to decrease illegal border crossings by undocumented workers by 90 percent.

Yesenia Mendoza, volunteer for local Latino rights group Pa’Delante, said the bill would allow undocumented students to pursue opportunities similar to last year’s DREAM Act, but current language would prohibit students from accessing federal aid through Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms.

“That’s a huge mistake,” Mendoza said. “Yes, they can go to college and yes, they can work, but we know that even regular American students, if they don’t get FAFSA, they don’t go to school. What makes you think that undocumented students would go to school without it?”

Franken said he heard concerns from several people about provisions in the bill, specifically with H-1B visas for foreign workers and issues relating to children’s rights when parents are caught by federal immigration officials. He has pushed for improvements to the “E-verify” identification system businesses use to check an employee’s legal status, as well as reform to connect children with parents facing deportation, an issue raised as a result of raids at places like Worthington in 2006 where young children were effectively abandoned once their parents were detained.

“We have to make sure that the errors that there are in E-verify become reduced, and when there are errors, there’s a way of adjudicating it faster,” Franken said.

Several states passed immigration reform-related actions earlier this week dealing with employment and education, in time for this year’s May Day rallies. Many such state-level proposals go beyond what is being discussed on Capitol Hill, and the significant, if piecemeal, shift shows lawmakers reacting to a pendulum swing in public opinion that helped usher many of them into office. But experts also say state legislators have been spurred ahead by halting progress in Washington, D.C.

The Minnesota Senate passed the Minnesota Prosperity Act 41-23 to allow undocumented students to be eligible for in-state tuition and financial aid at public universities and colleges. The state House of Representatives likely won’t vote on the issue, but the bill could be inserted into a higher education omnibus bill at the joint committee level before going to Gov. Mark Dayton.

Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, was one of two Democrats to break ranks and vote against the bill. Sparks said he had no issue with undocumented students receiving in-state tuition, but didn’t agree with allowing undocumented students access to state grants.

“There’s only so much dollars in that pool,” he said.

Sparks also said the issue would likely need to be dealt with at a federal level, as there’s only so much the state can do.

Franken said immigration reform has overcome many hurdles thus far, and the best way to change it would be to support the so-called Gang of Eight’s work on much-needed changes to immigration law.

“We have a broken immigration system,” Franken said. “It hurts our economy, it’s been a drag on our economy. We are a nation of laws, we are a nation of immigrants, and when we’re not using those to their fullest, it’s a drag on the country.”

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