Two years ago, Antolin Aguirre was lambasted by Republican lawmakers during a state Senate hearing for testifying in Spanish in opposition to state-based immigration proposals he said were discriminatory.
On Friday he was back at the Capitol delivering a different message.
“We’re launching a nationwide human rights movement where we are respected, not only as immigrants but as human beings and as part of this society,” Aguirre said. “And we’re demanding an immigration reform policy that’s functional and humane, that unites families and respects our dignity.”
Aguirre, one of hundreds who took to the Capitol for a rally in support of comprehensive immigration reform, benefited from President Reagan’s 1986 amnesty bill. Now a U.S. citizen, it was with a mix of pragmatism and optimism on Friday that he joined activists, immigrants, attorneys and faith-based groups to urge federal lawmakers to revamp the country’s current immigration system and create a pathway to citizenship for millions of people living in the country illegally.
“I like the fact that they’re talking about immigration reform in general and that they acknowledge that the current system is broken,” said Raul García, an immigration attorney and partner with the García and García Law Firm in Austin. “A legal way to come in [today] would be to wait for 16 or 20 years before being able to come in, which is almost impossible.”
But García said some of the current proposals are also problematic — including the emphasis Democrats and Republicans have placed on securing the border. Garcia said throwing more money at the effort is futile and only increases deportations, which have hit record levels under President Obama’s tenure in the White House.
“I think they are doing a great job, but I don’t think there is ever going to be zero undocumented immigration in to this country," he said. "So if we are waiting for something like that to happen, it’s not” going to.
Despite differing opinions on what the immigration proposal should like, there is a general consensus that Republicans — the party whose lawmakers carried recent measures aimed at banning “sanctuary cities” in Texas and repealing in-state tuition for undocumented public high school graduates — are embracing some incarnation of reform.
“There is more openness now to conservative solutions on immigration than ever before, so in that sense, I don’t think this rally in particular changes anything,” said Josh Treviño, vice president for communications at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based conservative think tank. “But through conversations with interested groups, I think we now have more opportunity of yielding good policy, especially in Texas, than ever before.”
But Treviño said the demand for a pathway to citizenship is not “the relevant fight.” While what to do with the population already living here is important, he said, the underlying issue is how to facilitate the movement of labor across borders.
"For the past half century there hasn’t been a way to do that. That is the original policy flaw that has created the problem," he said. "That’s what conservatives ought to discuss. The unskilled labor guest-worker program is very, very tiny. And it doesn’t meet market demands.”
The coming weeks are certain to be filled with more conversation about what lawmakers can offer up as an agreeable solution. Bipartisan groups in Congress are currently working on drafts, as is the Obama administration. That not only increases the likelihood of prolonged debate, but also the chance that some form of reform will ultimately pass.
For people like Rocio, an 18-year-old U.S. citizen who asked that her last name not be used, it comes down compassion.
“I come from a Mexican family. They are from Durango,” she said of her parents, who are living in the country illegally. ‘They moved here for my sister and me, to give us a better life. They gave up everything, and I owe it to them to fight for them.”