To people like Carlos Delacruz, the debate over immigration reform in Washington, D.C. this summer brought back a feeling that had become almost remote since the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. A feeling of hope.
Delacruz, 35, lives in La Honda and supports his wife and two kids with a job he landed at a rural winery – planting, harvesting, pruning, spraying. He pays his taxes, cashes his checks to buy groceries and gas. He takes English classes at Puente in his spare time.
He also happens to be undocumented.
If Congress passes a meaningful immigration reform bill this year, it could give Delacruz and his wife, who were born in Jalisco, the opportunity to become documented. Then he could get a job that doesn’t hurt his knees as much as working on steep, hilly vineyards – one that might pay better, like a gardener or groundskeeper.
“I’d like to have more opportunities. If we get the green card, we can also get a driver’s license,” says Delacruz, who currently drives without a license or car insurance.
With Senate approval of “The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act,” undocumented South Coast residents like Delacruz are the closest they’ve ever been to accessing legal papers in decades. Unfortunately, the prospect of meaningful immigration reform has dimmed considerably as Congress heads into the August recess.
Puente views this process as an important opportunity to step in with accurate information, reliable advice, and crucial programs and services to get people on track.
Locals started contacting Puente for help months ago, says Executive Director Kerry Lobel. Puente has a proven track record of providing legal clinics around immigration topics, as well as working with partners to help people fill out legal documents.
“There’s been quite a buzz: is immigration reform really going to happen this time? People are already calling and asking, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to be ready?’ says Puente Executive Director Kerry Lobel.
Puente, too, has questions. Staff members are attending regional stakeholder meetings to learn all they can, and forming connections with like-minded groups as they try to prepare for a variety of scenarios.
So would Puente’s tax program, which has already seen a bump from locals who want to file taxes to have a paper trail ahead of immigration reform.
Puente’s slate of immigration services will also change. Puente will be seeking certification as a BIA (Board of Immigration Appeal) Representative, not just help them fill out a form. Puente will also be able to represent people in court.
“We know that whenever any type of immigration legislation comes down, the need for legal services is always the first gatekeeper for people’s well being,” says Manuel Santamaria, Director of Grantmaking with Silicon Valley Community Foundation, who oversees the foundation’s immigrant integration grantmaking strategy.
The University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration estimates that at least 2.6 million Californians are here without papers (8 percent of all adults). They comprise 9 percent of the workforce, and more than half of them are living in poverty.
Their lives won’t change overnight. The immigration bill would carve out a 13-year path to citizenship for those who meet certain qualifications and pass security checks. And that’s after Congress spends $46 billion to further militarize the border.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about a path to citizenship,” says Santamaria.
It’s the third time in recent memory that Lobel recalls thinking “this may be it!”
“We keep think something is going to come. That’s why we’re helping people become more proficient in English, helping them get their GEDs, and studying for citizenship tests – so that when the day comes, we’ll be ready.”