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Why the Time Is Finally Right for 'Amnesty' Why the Time Is Finally Right for 'Amnesty'

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Magazine / Immigration

Why the Time Is Finally Right for 'Amnesty'

From rural South Carolina to inner-city Chicago, Americans say they’re ready for immigration reform.

Viva: Every September, Chicago’s Little Village celebrates Mexican independence with a parade.(Max Herman)

CHICAGO–One way to measure the chasm that Congress must bridge to complete comprehensive immigration reform after years of stalemate is to consider the cultural, economic, and demographic distance between two restaurants.

One of them is El Faro, a popular Mexican place in the Little Village neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. On an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon late this winter, El Faro was buzzing, families filling every seat in the sun-splashed dining room. Three generations of the same family congregated at many of the tables, with children abounding. The restaurant ran through high chairs almost as fast as tortilla chips and marinated jalapenos. Waitresses carrying bistec a la Mexicana and costillitas en salsa verde squeezed through the happy tumult like surfers calmly riding a wave. Almost everyone in the room was Hispanic.

Sitting toward the back of the dining room was Luis Gutierrez, the area’s Democratic representative in the U.S. House. A former Chicago alderman, Gutierrez has been one of the most forceful voices on immigration since arriving in Congress in 1993. Fiery in front of a microphone, Gutierrez in person is slight and soft-spoken. But a visiting movie star would not have attracted more attention this day: A continuous procession of men and women, usually with children in tow, drifted to his table. Almost as soon as each visitor finished, another hesitantly approached.

“Everything [in Little Village] is a connection between those who are here and those who are in Mexico.”—Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.

Some came to have their photo taken with him or ask for an autograph. Others said they just wanted to thank Gutierrez for his work on the immigration issue (which has included stiff criticism of President Obama’s increase in deportations). But most came looking for help with immigration problems for themselves or relatives. The range of these problems was kaleidoscopic. Elizabeth Chavez, the president of a local travel agency, was worried about a close relative, who was operating a small grocery store but still could not buy a house for her family because she was in the U.S. illegally. “She is giving jobs to people because she has the grocery store,” Chavez said. “And she wants to purchase a house, but she says, ‘If I have to leave the country what will I do?’ ” Another woman, with her husband and two young children, all three of them American citizens, came to the table in tears because her own application for citizenship had hit a snag. In these conversations, the anticipation that Washington may soon provide a path to legal status for the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally throbbed with almost physical force. “When that man says to me, ‘Thanks for supporting us,’ he’s not talking about health care,” Gutierrez said after one visitor left. “He’s talking about what they view as a civil-rights, and human-rights, struggle.”

A few weeks later, on a brisk spring morning, the regular breakfast crowd filed into another restaurant—Tommy’s Country Ham House in Greenville, S.C. The spot is a routine stop for Republican presidential candidates visiting this staunchly conservative region, and the television mounted in the corner was tuned, inevitably, to Fox News. Here the tables were also mostly filled with groups: friends swapping old stories over fresh coffee in a regular morning get-together; salesmen plotting their day’s targets; what looked like the entire football offensive line from nearby Furman University; a few families. The waitresses deftly balancing plates of eggs and chicken sausage and salty slabs of country ham seemed to know everyone by name. Apart from a few African-Americans, the crowd was preponderantly white.

Immigration reform probably has a better chance of passing Congress this year than at any point since President Reagan signed sweeping legislation that legalized millions of undocumented immigrants in 1986. The sense of momentum intensified earlier this week when a bipartisan group of senators led by Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced their long-awaited bipartisan plan. But immigration legislation still faces a difficult passage through the House, and one reason is encapsulated by the gap between the crowds at El Faro and Tommy’s: There is an enormous racial gulf in the districts represented by House Democrats and Republicans. While most Republicans represent districts dominated by whites, most Democrats hold districts in which minorities are more common than nationally.

That contrast creates very different political incentives as House members in each party grapple with these issues. In districts like Gutierrez’s, immigration reform is a matter of pressing personal experience that shapes every aspect of daily life. But it is much more of an abstract question of values and principles in preponderantly white districts. In Greenville and Spartanburg, which are represented by two-term Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, it is common to find opposition to any amnesty or path to citizenship expressed around the simple conviction that it is wrong to reward people who have broken the law.

And yet, even at Tommy’s, opinions about immigration were not always as predictable as the surroundings might imply—partly because many whites here view the area’s growing Hispanic community as hardworking, family-oriented, and religiously devout. “You’ve got to be realistic about the whole thing,” said Sam Weaver, who owns a groundwater-cleanup business. “They are here. And most of them work very hard.”

In some places, the growth of new Hispanic communities has triggered a political backlash—a dynamic that Hispanic leaders say existed in Greenville itself not long ago. But Weaver’s comments capture a shifting mix of economic, social, and political factors that has created an opening for immigration reform even in this deeply conservative area. In Greenville, the most important sound on immigration is the dog that isn’t barking. More grassroots opposition may emerge once Congress begins debating an actual bill, but for now there’s no sign of an uprising against the possibility of legal status and citizenship for those here illegally, even though Gowdy chairs the House Judiciary Immigration Policy and Enforcement Subcommittee, where any legislation will start. “You may run into somebody who talks about mass deportation, but it is episodic at best,” Gowdy said. Rising anticipation in districts like Gutierrez’s, and diminishing resistance in those like Gowdy’s, could be the formula that breaks Washington’s entrenched stalemate over immigration reform.


Especially after this week’s release of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” plan, the general assumption among immigration-reform advocates is that the Senate, by sometime this summer, will pass legislation that includes a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants. Reform’s fate then would turn on whether advocates can push any plan up the steep hill of the Republican-controlled House—which they could not do in 2006 after the Senate passed an earlier bipartisan bill with a path to citizenship.

One reason immigration legislation faces such an uncertain future in the House is that few Republicans represent districts with large populations of Hispanics—or minorities of any sort. As National Journal calculated earlier this year, four-fifths of House Republicans represent districts in which whites exceed their two-thirds national share of the voting-age population. That leaves them with less direct political incentive to reach an agreement. Already in conversations with colleagues, Gowdy has detected that some from districts with little diversity appear “more hesitant initially” about any reform. By contrast, as National Journal calculated, almost two-thirds of House Democrats represent districts in which minorities exceed their national share of the voting-age population.

These contrasts are especially stark on the House Judiciary Committee, which looms as a critical isthmus for immigration legislation. Whites, on average, make up more than three-fourths of the voting-age population in the districts of Republicans on the panel. In the districts represented by Democrats, minorities constitute almost two-thirds of the voting-age population, nearly double their national share. The Democratic roster on the committee includes several of the party’s most prominent African-American members, as well as Gutierrez, Joe Garcia of Florida, and Asian-American Judy Chu of California.

This gulf testifies to the extent that House Republicans have fortified themselves into districts buffered from the trends that saw Hispanics provide at least 40 percent of the population growth in half the states from 2000 to 2010. Yet the dispersal of the Hispanic population has reached a point that House Republicans are not entirely immune to it. Hispanics, according to the latest census figures, represent at least 10 percent or more of the total population in the districts of nine Judiciary Committee Republicans. In Gowdy’s district, they make up 7.4 percent of the population.

Even that thin wedge, though, may be tilting the political dynamics there in a way that captures subtle shifts in other GOP-leaning terrain. On most questions, Upstate South Carolina is a deeply conservative place. Bob Jones University, the fundamentalist institution that dropped its ban on interracial dating only in 2000, is a pillar of the region. Mitt Romney won more than three-fifths of the vote against Obama in Gowdy’s 4th Congressional District. Gowdy won his seat with a tea-party-backed 2010 primary insurgency against Republican Rep. Bob Inglis, whom he denounced as insufficiently conservative. Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor and Spartanburg County district attorney, then cruised to victory in the general election and easily won a second term last fall.

But while Upstate South Carolina is staunchly conservative, it is also unusually internationalized. Faced with the systemic decline of its historic textile industry, the region in the 1980s attracted huge investments along the I-85 corridor from Michelin and BMW, which builds its zippy Z-5 convertible in a cutting-edge plant outside Spartanburg. Those decisions triggered a cascade of foreign investments that have transformed and revitalized the area’s economy. Today, according to the Greenville Chamber of Commerce, the 10-county Upstate region houses 240 foreign firms from 24 countries, including Mitsubishi, Samsung, and GlaxoSmithKline. “This area is a thoroughly globalized, export-driven economy,” said lawyer Knox White, Greenville’s mayor since 1995.


This transformation is imprinted on Greenville itself, whose downtown now boasts bike paths, a nifty minor-league baseball stadium, and the universal markers of a young, well-educated population: coffee bars, jazz clubs, and critically acclaimed restaurants with retro cocktails and complex locally sourced cuisine. For a few blocks, it’s like a mini-Brooklyn, with grits. “When you walk around here, you hear a lot of foreign languages on Main Street,” said White, whose legal practice centers on helping multinational employers obtain visas for their employees.

Except for some workers recruited by Colombian textile companies, Hispanics have not participated heavily in this internationally driven growth. But they benefited from it indirectly. As the regional economy revived, large numbers of Hispanics, many of them arriving illegally, poured into jobs in construction, landscaping, and gardening, joining those who already had migrated to the area for agricultural jobs. “Everybody knew it, everybody winked at it,” White said. “For 10 years, nobody asked where your card was.” The combined effects of the housing-market collapse and state legislation toughening enforcement against illegal immigrants abruptly slowed the growth in 2008. Even so, from 2000 to 2010, the Hispanic population more than doubled in both Greenville and Spartanburg counties, and it now exceeds a combined 53,000, according to the 2010 census.

Wilfredo Leon has watched this growth burgeon around him since he arrived in Greenville in 1985. An engineer from Puerto Rico, he came initially to work for a computer-equipment company. At that point, he said, the Hispanic community was so small “that all of us could go to the same Mass” at church. After retiring in the mid-1990s, Leon became active in a local advocacy group now known as the Hispanic Alliance and then started a newspaper called Latino, which he still distributes himself every week, driving across the state.

In Upstate South Carolina, the Hispanic population has concentrated in the Berea area just outside of Greenville. In neighborhoods where white blue-collar mill workers once lived, entire shopping centers are devoted to stores with Spanish names. In the White Horse Plaza, the La Unica Super Center testifies to the community’s growth: It’s a supermarket the size of a football field, with 21 spotless aisles, its own carniceria and tortilleria, glistening piles of jalapeno rojo and chile serrano peppers, and groaning 20 pound bags of Goya rice.

Leon says that Greenville-area Hispanics faced a backlash in 2008 when South Carolina joined a wave of other Republican-led states approving legislation cracking down on illegal immigrants. But now, “the mood has changed,” Leon said. “We went through a political storm … and it was like, ‘You are here too much; we don’t want you here.’ But now that’s swinging back.” Hostility hasn’t been eliminated, he said, but it no longer feels like a constant presence. The strong religious conviction of many Hispanic families around Greenville has provided a point of connection with whites in the heavily evangelical area. And the globalized character of the region’s economy may have also seeded the ground for acceptance. “This is the most international place in the state of South Carolina,” Leon said. “And as a result of that, people are more open to diversity. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

From a very different angle, Brent Nelsen, a Republican activist and political scientist at nearby Furman University, sees a similar evolution. He remembers attending a Republican precinct meeting “in the heady days of the tea party” in 2009 “and it was all about immigration.” But when he attended his precinct meeting in March, guns and gay marriage dominated the conversation, and almost no one mentioned immigration—even though Gowdy, the local representative, could play a central role in defining the House’s response. Nelsen’s theory is that the slowdown in the Hispanic population growth after the housing crash has blunted anxiety. “They were reacting to the inflow of immigrants, [and] there was a basic nativist reaction,” Nelson said. “The Hispanic population in this country grew very rapidly, so that whole parts of the country … just became Spanish-speaking…. But after the crash of the housing boom in ’08, that really slowed down, and people got used to the level of Hispanics that are here now, and it seems normal.”

Lean and engaging, Gowdy has lived in the area his entire life, working in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Greenville and later as the county solicitor in Spartanburg. He has watched the region’s transformation from a declining textile economy to a hub of internationally driven growth. “I’ve never heard a negative reflection on the internationalism that has become the new Upstate,” he said in an interview conducted just off the I-85 corridor. “I mean it is really cool to tell people you are the national headquarters for BMW.” Nor, Gowdy says, did he ever prosecute a crime “that was rooted in racial animus” against Hispanics; instead, as Spartanburg’s county solicitor (or district attorney) he hired the state’s first Hispanic victim’s advocate. “When you are the DA … you don’task crime victims, ‘What is your legal status?’ ” he said. Gowdy said he feels no backlash against demographic change in his district that would poison the well for immigration reform. And while he attaches many conditions to any path to citizenship—including rigorous background checks, not giving undocumented residents any advantage over those waiting legally, and linking any legalization process to verifiable progress on securing the border—when asked whether he supports establishing some legal status for those here illegally, he doesn’t hesitate: “What is the alternative?”

That doesn’t mean that all, or even most, people around Greenville would be enthusiastic about legislation providing legal status or citizenship to illegal immigrants. Republican state Sen. Lee Bright of Spartanburg, who has mused about challenging Sen. Lindsey Graham in a GOP primary, said any such measure would be a mistake. “I think the rule of law is important, and, obviously, letting people who came here become legal citizens is a problem,” he said. “We have to have a common culture and assimilation, and we don’t have that now. I think the debate is headed in the wrong direction.” At Tommy’s Ham House, Jason Jernigan, a flooring mechanic from Berea, was one of several who echoed Bright’s concerns. “I don’t got no problem with them—we opened up our church to them and let them start their own church in it,” he said. “But they should not be rewarded for doing something illegal. If I do something illegal, I’ve got to go to a jail.”

Such views aren’t particularly surprising in such a conservative area. More striking was how many people in Tommy’s on that early-April morning struck the opposite chord. Randy Taylor, a television repairman from Greenville eating breakfast with Jernigan, was one of them. He pored over the morning paper while drinking his coffee, and when a visiting reporter joined him, he immediately identified himself as a “staunch Southern Christian conservative.” Asked a few minutes later about gun control, Taylor reached for the pocket of the jacket draped across his chair. “Want to see mine?” he said. “It’s right here. I’m a carrier.” He held a low opinion of Obama and wasn’t much more enthusiastic about Graham. Yet about illegal immigrants, Taylor said, “I think we need to make a path to get them all legalized. I don’t think it should be amnesty … but they need to register, start the process, pay the money [in fines]. I don’t believe in sending them back, because it’s not feasible. And doing nothing is not the route to go.”

Taylor, like several others in the room, thought it important that illegal immigrants not receive public benefits or any preferential treatment in obtaining citizenship, more so than that they be rounded up or persuaded to leave. The attitudes at Tommy’s suggest an unanticipated rebound from Mitt Romney’s loud call in the 2012 campaign for “self-deportation.” Even many conservative voters, it appears, looked at that idea and found it unrealistic. Taylor’s remarks paralleled the results of focus groups conducted recently among Republican primary voters in Greenville and Des Moines, Iowa, by the GOP research group Resurgent Republic. Summarizing the results of those sessions, the group wrote, “Universally deporting undocumented immigrants is viewed as an impractical solution.” Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, a cofounder of the group, says that means Republican legislators may have “more room to maneuver” in crafting immigration reform than is commonly assumed. “Members, if they are inclined to be for a broad-based solution approach, if they take the time to make sure their voters are informed, I think they are going to have a lot more latitude than the initial impression has been,” Gillespie said. Even in a place as consistently conservative as Upstate South Carolina, by all indications that’s exactly what Gowdy is betting as well.


Snow still wrapped the trees and power lines outside the windows in a top-floor meeting room when the Marshall Square Resource Network gathered for its monthly session in March. The network brings together small nonprofit organizations that work with the large and long-standing Hispanic population in the Little Village and Pilsen neighborhoods on Chicago’s west side. These neighborhoods once provided the gateway for Irish, Polish, and Czech immigrants, a legacy imprinted in the names of streets like Pulaski Road and Cermak Road (named after the Czech-born Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who was killed in an assassination attempt against Franklin Roosevelt).

“We went through a political storm ... and it was like, ... ‘We don’t want you here.’ But now that’s swinging back. ”—Wilfredo Leon of Greenville, S.C.

Today the streets are filled with predominantly Mexican families of modest means. These hardscrabble neighborhoods feel very distant from the sheen of the Magnificent Mile of designer shops along Michigan Avenue downtown. But they possess their own unmistakable vibrancy. The schools are crowded with young children. Slicing through Little Village, 26th Street is a bustling commercial strip, with families ambling with strollers past clothing stores, banks, travel agencies, and a swarm of shops advertising money transfers and phone cards. “Everything is a connection between those who are here and those who are in Mexico,” said Rep. Gutierrez, as he drove along the strip. The stretch attracts Hispanic shoppers from across the Midwest. “You know about the Magnificent Mile: In Little Village, we have what I refer to as the two magnificent miles,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in an interview. “It produces more sales revenue for the city of Chicago, outside of the Magnificent Mile, than anywhere else.”

The most powerful impression that emerges almost immediately in these neighborhoods is the ubiquity and immediacy of the immigration debate. Lawrence Benito, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said the best estimate is that there are 550,000 undocumented immigrants in Illinois, about half of them likely in Chicago. In Little Village and Pilsen, that translates into families that include almost every possible permutation of legal and illegal status. Local activists say it is not unusual for legal status to differ between spouses, between parents and children, and even between siblings. At Latinos Progresando, a neighborhood organization, “the vast majority” of people who seek help are citizens or permanent residents with undocumented relatives, said a community activist also named Luis Gutierrez, who founded the group.

Uncertainty and ambiguity about immigration is woven into the fabric of life here. For those without legal status, “it’s harder to work, it’s harder to do travel, it’s harder to do everything,” said Gutierrez, the community worker. Chicago’s reputation as a haven for immigrants, activists say, buffers daily concern about deportation but doesn’t extinguish it. Parents wrestle with difficult choices about what, and when, to tell children. At the Marshall Square Network meeting, Marcy Gonzalez, who runs the Latinos Progresando legal-service program, told the group about a mother who brought in her two teenage sons for help in filling out the forms required under Obama’s “deferred action” executive order allowing children brought here illegally by their parents to obtain temporary legal status. As Gonzalez worked through the questions with the family, the two boys grew more and more perplexed. “The 16- and 17-year-old were like, ‘What am I doing here, Mom?’ ” Gonzalez recalled. “And what’s when they found out they were undocumented.”

Immigration reform providing legal status for those here illegally wouldn’t remotely erase all of the problems confronting these neighborhoods, a list that includes poverty, lack of health insurance, struggling schools, and crime. But activists and residents say it could trigger significant changes. One would be to ease the way illegal immigrants interact with public institutions, such as schools and the health care system. Increasing parental engagement in education has been a priority for Emanuel, but he said some parents without legal status hesitate to meet with teachers, even if their children are U.S. citizens. “I am trying to encourage parental involvement and responsibility in schools, and schools are part of ‘the system’ … [so] beneath the current, there is a hidden factor,” he said. “Today’s immigration laws are a small but nonetheless flashing light.”

That dynamic reflects a general reluctance of illegal immigrants to interact with public systems in any way—even when their citizen children are eligible for benefits such as health insurance. Lisa Monnot is the associate director of Taller de Jose, an innovative church-funded group that accompanies residents to health care appointments, court appearances, and visits to public agencies. “We do have a lot of clients who are hesitant to apply for public benefits even if their children are eligible,” she said. “There is that fear to go anywhere and access certain services because [they worry] that somebody is going to pick you up.” Raul Garcia, the multicultural community-affairs manager for the Sinai Community Institute, which runs a hospital chain in Chicago, said that undocumented immigrants often “are afraid” to seek care until they have no choice. “They go when they have an emergency,” he said. “They don’t go for prescriptions; they don’t go to see a doctor for a checkup. That’s a problem not only for them, but … for the system.”

Legalization’s other big tangible impact, many in these neighborhoods believe, would be to provide an economic jolt. Elizabeth Chavez, the travel-agency owner who greeted Rep. Gutierrez in the restaurant, says with legal status, people would be “more inclined to spend money, buy a house, open a business.” Rep. Gutierrez agrees. Driving past a bank on 26th Street, he said, “Can you imagine, when you legalize 11 million people, how many homes will be sold? How many mortgages? How many cars?” The final intangible is how much these communities might be changed by lifting the apprehension and anxiety that shadow those here illegally. Community activists talk of parents who ask such piercingly tangible questions as who will care for their children if they are deported. “There’s a lot of fear,” Rep. Gutierrez said simply.

Across these communities, it’s clear there is also a great deal of anticipation. People are keenly aware of the Hispanic role in Obama’s victory (he carried 81 percent in this district), and the promises he’s made to push reform harder than he did during his first term. At the Marshall Square meeting, Gonzalez told the group she is already being peppered with questions from families anticipating that Congress will create a program allowing them to seek legal status. “People are asking, ‘What do I need to get ready?’ ” she said. “They say, ‘We don’t know if we should be excited, scared, nervous. Should we be taking out a loan to be ready for what’s going on?’ ”

In Greenville, outside of the Hispanic community, the issue isn’t as urgent. Nelsen, the political scientist and Republican activist, says gay marriage and gun control now provoke much more conversation in conservative circles. That ebbing of interest among Greenville’s whites may serve the cause of immigration reform as much as the surge of excitement among Little Village’s Mexican-Americans. The growing anticipation among Hispanics heightens the pressure on Democrats to pass a bill; the waning resistance among conservatives provides more flexibility for Republicans who believe the party must resolve this issue to win back the White House. From very different positions in the complex mosaic of immigration reform, Little Village and Greenville may be sliding into alignment.


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