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Former Activist Says Pathway to Citizenship Is Possible in 2013

Hari Sreenivasan talks with Cook Co. commissioner Jesus Garcia about the changing debate over immigration.

The last time the nation heard the terms “amnesty” and “pathway to citizenship” batted around with such frequency was seven years ago, in the year leading up to the ultimately doomed Immigration Reform Act of 2007. The bill was a compromise championed by then-President George W. Bush that called for stronger border security and workplace enforcement laws, and would have led to legal status for immigrants in the U.S. without documentation.

The arguments on both sides sounded a whole lot like they do today. At the time, the NewsHour ran a series of one-on-one discussions, called “Immigration Insights,” with individuals exploring the concept of reform through the lens of their own involvement with immigrants.

Today, with comprehensive reform once again reportedly around the corner, we decided to go back to some of the same individuals (along with some new faces) and ask what’s changed — and what hasn’t — seven years later. Does today’s political landscape feel like history repeating itself? Have their attitudes toward immigration changed?

When Gwen Ifill spoke with Mexican immigrant Jesus Garcia in 2006, he was busy organizing marches in his adopted city of Chicago to protest parts of proposed legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that would have cracked down on penalties for immigrants.

Gwen Ifill speaks with Mexican immigrant Jesus Garcia on Aug. 18, 2006.

The House bill would ultimately fail to become law. But the marches, Garcia said at the time, “changed the nature of the debate on immigration.” He explained: “Since the marches occurred in historic proportions all over the country, we saw the Senate rise and take a position recognizing that legalization of this undocumented immigrant population is something that has to happen, that it is realistic, and that is good for America.”

Protesters in Chicago’s Union Park May 1, 2006. Photo: Joshua LOTT/AFP/Getty Images

At the time, Garcia also accused some of the “far-fringe” groups of trying “to whip up fear” in the 2006 debate with anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Garcia, now the Cook County Commissioner for the Seventh District of Chicago, tells Hari Sreenivasan that he views the playing field today differently. “I think there’s been a tremendous sea change in the conversation.”

In large part, he credits November’s presidential election for the change. “The Latino vote emerged as a very strategic … player in the future of the country’s national election,” Garcia says. “Particularly important is the fact the Republican Party has taken note of that.”

“I think there’s been a tremendous sea change in the conversation.”
–Jesus Garcia

In 2011, under Garcia’s leadership, the county passed an ordinance to stop complying with detainment requests from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement for suspected immigrants jailed on other charges. Garcia said he pushed for the measure after seeing hundreds of people detained for “very small infractions” such as traffic violations, and “because of their immigrant status being arrested and detained at county jail.” Now, he says that Cook County is able to guarantee the rights of everyone who lives here, “including immigrants who may not be documented.”

Garcia calls the current atmosphere in Washington “very constructive,” and he is hopeful about the current push for reform. “People who have lived here for many years are just very, very excited about the possibility of achieving a pathway to citizenship,” Garcia said, adding, “It’s about time.”

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