Immigration U-turn has Hispanics seeing "light at end of tunnel"
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Ricardo, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, sets off each day before dawn looking for casual work in construction not knowing if he will return home to his wife and three children or get snared in an immigration sweep. Lately, he feels the pervasive fear slowly lifting.
Ricardo, 46, is among millions of Latino immigrants who, regardless of their immigration status, feel fresh optimism this week over newfound Republican willingness to consider immigration reform to avoid further alienating Hispanic voters who proved key to re-electing President Barack Obama.
Some leading Republicans have signaled a shift away from an enforcement-only approach to illegal immigration, with House Speaker John Boehner saying that a "comprehensive approach is long overdue."
"When we head out ... it's always with the fear that we might not all make it back home," Ricardo said in Spanish, perched on the couch in his Phoenix apartment with his wife, Alicia, 43. "But now you can see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Emboldened by the large turnout of Hispanic voters in last week's general election, Obama said on Wednesday he plans to move quickly to address comprehensive immigration reform after he is sworn in for his second term in office in January.
"My expectation is that we get a bill introduced and we begin the process in Congress very soon after my inauguration," Obama, a Democrat, said at his first press conference since winning re-election.
A legislative package would include strengthening border security, penalties for employers that hire undocumented workers and an avenue for many of the roughly 11.2 million illegal immigrants in the United States to gain citizenship, he said.
Earlier, in a sign of growing bipartisan support, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said on Sunday he and Republican Lindsey Graham had agreed to restart talks on a proposal for a comprehensive overhaul.
Not since President George W. Bush's 2007 push for broad immigration reform, which ultimately died in the Senate, have Hispanics and other immigrants here heard such promising words.
For Ricardo and Alicia, who have stayed on in Arizona despite a state clampdown on illegal immigration designed to drive them out, comprehensive immigration reform holds out the possibility of a permanent status for themselves and a more secure future for their children.
The couple, who asked not to be identified by their last name, crossed over the desert to Arizona from Mexico 11 years ago and now work as a builder and house cleaner. They first sent the children, now 21, 16 and 13, to the United States by bus with false papers, then walked across the desert themselves.
Now fluent in English and Spanish, the children consider themselves Americans and the oldest is planning to apply for deferred deportation status. They felt threatened by the Arizona crackdown but decided not to flee.
"We've focused on working and bringing up our children honorably," said Alicia, adding that immigration reform "could make it easier for my children to carry on studying."
GROWING PART OF ELECTORATE
Latinos are the largest minority and the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, amounting to 10 percent of the voting public in last week's election, up from 8 percent in 2008 according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
They also largely supported Obama, with his backing among Hispanic voters in the election coming in at about 66 percent, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling data, roughly in line with the percentage that voted for him four years ago.
"The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them," Florida Senator Marco Rubio said last week.
For Mexico-born Justino Mora, a student in Los Angeles who won temporary legal status under relaxed deportation rules but whose mother remains undocumented, the new focus on immigration reform left him hopeful but wanting more.
"It's really strange knowing that my two siblings and I ... are protected from deportation and have the ability to work in the U.S., get a Social Security number and apply for a driver's license, but my mom does not," said Mora, 23.
Even as some Republicans have expressed willingness to consider an immigration overhaul, others, including Republican Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who has been at odds with the Obama administration on immigration policy, have resisted such calls.
Brewer, whose state requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop and suspect is in the country illegally, warned in a statement against rushing "head-long into a ‘solution' that only makes things worse."
With mixed messages from Republicans, some Latino immigrants remain wary about whether they could trust Republicans to represent their interests going forward.
"You can't trust them: They tell you one thing and they do something else ... There's a lot of them who don't like Hispanics," said Mexican day laborer Baltazar Lara, 54, as he risked arrest waiting to be hired outside a Phoenix-area Wal-Mart.
But Mexico-born Edder Diaz, 22, who volunteered to help register Hispanic voters across the Phoenix valley ahead of the election, said he remained open to the possibility of one day voting Republican should he win citizenship.
"For me, personally, I see myself as independent ... If a Republican understands my needs ... I may vote for them," said Diaz. "Up to this point they have only been playing political games to get themselves elected. There may be a possibility."