The controversial immigration reform package being debated in Congress — and in households across Arizona — would undoubtedly transform the lives of illegal immigrants such as Juventino Canedo.
Canedo lives in a Mesa apartment and works for a local construction company. He’s lived illegally in the United States for 2 1/2 years. During his time here, he says the atmosphere toward illegal immigrants has grown increasingly hostile.
But Canedo and many others like him say the sweeping immigration reform measure in the Senate gives them hope.
“We will no longer have to walk down the streets in fear,” he said in Spanish. “I have a family — a wife and children — that I have to support. And if they deport me, it would be very difficult.
“When we walk around we are always hiding from immigration agents.”
The 300-page immigration bill was introduced last week after months of bipartisan negotiations, and it has already come under attack by both Democrats and Republicans.
The bill includes plans to tighten border security, increase penalties for hiring illegal immigrants and establish a temporary guest worker program. It also reduces the emphasis on familybased immigration visas and creates a path to citizenship for the millions al- ready here.
Despite criticism that the bill amounts to amnesty, many immigrants in Mesa say they are generally in favor of it.
Miriam Ramirez, a legal resident who owns Restaurante Salvadoreño #1 in Mesa, said she likes the idea of the “Z visa,” a renewable visa that would allow immigrants to work here and travel outside the United States, as well as to help them get on a path to citizenship.
“I like that it would give people the opportunity to have permission to work here for a long time, and after that time, they’d have the option to get their citizenship,” she said in Spanish. “That seems fantastic to me.”
Erick Cruz, 25, said he plans to apply for the new visa if the measure passes. He would be eligible because he arrived in the United States before Jan. 1, 2007, the proposed cutoff date for illegal immigrants who wish to apply.
“It’s good because of the benefits in it,” he said in Spanish. “For me, perhaps the best part of it would be the citizenship.
“If I wanted to maybe take a break one weekend, I can go to my house in Mexico,” he continued. “And I can return, and I can work again, and on vacations I can visit my family.”
The freedom to travel back and forth across the border appeals to a lot of immigrants.
“There are so many men that have a heavy obligation to go back to Mexico to visit aging parents or to be there in case of a death,” said Jack Hannon, a Mesa resident who started a radio station to help teach English to residents of the Nuestro Neighborhood. “Not being able to do that at present is a really heavy burden.”
Depending on the type of residency status, even those who work here legally such as Donora Ortega are not always able to travel back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border.
In Ortega’s case, she is allowed to renew a work permit each year under a special temporary status available to people from El Salvador. But that permit does not let her travel outside the United States.
Fifteen years have passed since she first got here, and during that time, she’s had to watch her two children grow up in photos and on video.
Ortega likes the proposed bill, but worries the law would make it harder for immigrants trying to bring family members into the United States. Her 18-year-old daughter, for instance, would not be eligible for a green card based purely on family connections under the law because the plan only grants family-based visas to spouses and children under 18.
Other concerns shared by most immigrants revolve around the controversial Z visa. Under the proposed law, the path to citizenship would still be long and costly. And it would require the head of the household to return home to the country of origin to apply for permanent residency.
Hugo Sosa, an illegal immigrant who works at a Mesa restaurant, said it sounds like the path to citizenship still has a lot of obstacles for immigrants.
“What I think is that they will say go (back), and they’ll reinforce the walls, and we won’t be able to get back in,” he said. “If they want to trick us, they’ll tell us to go.”
Others share Sosa’s skepticism.
María Rodríguez de Santos, a legal immigrant who lives in Mesa, said she doesn’t trust the politicians to come up with a plan that actually benefits people. She was skeptical partly because the bill requires illegal immigrants to pay $5,000 in fees to achieve legal status.
“They are collecting a lot of money, and they know very well people don’t have money even to eat,” she said.
KEY POINTS IN THE IMMIGRATION REFORM MEASURE
• Illegal immigrants could come forward immediately and receive probationary legal status.
• Undocumented farm workers who can demonstrate they have worked at least 150 hours or three years in agriculture can apply for green cards.
• Erects 370 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
• Provides for detainment of up to 27,500 migrants per day.
• Authorizes hiring 18,000 new Border Patrol agents.
• Requires employers to electronically verify new employees to prove identity and work eligibility.
• Increases penalties for hiring undocumented workers.
• Spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and permanent residents would be eligible for green cards based on their family connections, but other relatives such as adult children would not be eligible.
• 380,000 visas a year would be awarded based on a point system that considers employment criteria, education, family connections and English proficiency.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.