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2011 Hispanic Heritage Month Events-Monday Afternoon Plenary

2011 CHCI Public Policy Conference-Monday Afternoon Plenary Panel
Immigration Reform and the DREAM Act—A Call to Action

MODERATOR:  José Díaz-Balart, Telemundo Network News Anchor

Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez
Senator Robert Menendez
Luis Enrique, GRAMMY®-winning Salsa Artist
Eddie Aldrete, Executive Vice President, IBC Bank
Cecilia Muñoz, Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, The White House

Jose Diaz Balart Moderates the Afternoon Plenary on Immigration Reform

Immigration reform is currently one of the country’s hottest topics.  Telemundo News Anchor José Díaz-Balart moderated this popular and timely session, which discussed immigration reform and how it relates to deportation, the DREAM Act, future workforce needs, and the effects on the American economy.

The session opened by posing the following important question:  what will it take for the United States to move forward with immigration reform?  The short answer is:  it already has, with the new implementation guidance issued by the Obama Administration. However, to accomplish comprehensive immigration reform and pass the DREAM Act, Sen. Bob Menendez suggested that the public debate needs to change and Republicans need to embrace it.

Although 23 Republicans have supported this legislation in the past, none are willing to support it now until they feel our borders are secure.  The United States is investing more resources on its border than ever before.  In fact, four of the border towns have among the lowest crimes rates in the nation.  The paradox is that, while billions have been spent on the border fence and electronic surveillance, illegal entrants are actually higher than before.

Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez had a pragmatic take on immigration reform. While we haven’t accomplished comprehensive immigration reform, he noted that there have been victories and triumphs. “We are succeeding,” he said, “but we need to put the fight into context.” While President Obama insists that he cannot bypass Congress in this fight, Obama’s administration has issued new guidance for enforcement. “There is discretion,” he said.  “If you came here as young person, you won’t be deported.”  Similarly, if you are a member of the U.S. armed forces, consideration must be made if you have American children.  If so, your wife can’t be deported.  While Rep. Gutiérrez doesn’t think there will be action until several years after the next election, he cited that this was an important victory for the Latino community.

Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez Discusses Immigration Reform
White House Director of Intergovernment Affairs Cecilia Munoz

Cecilia Muñoz, White House director of intergovernment affairs, reported that for the approximately 300,000 immigration cases, enforcement won’t focus on those who haven’t committed a crime.  “It’s abundantly clear that we’re not going to deport that whole Latino population,” she said. “DHS is trying to have a strategy about how to prioritize.  It’s the equivalent of going after serious criminals rather than jay walkers.”  She acknowledged that these initiatives don’t do it all; we still have a lot of work to do and bipartisan support is essential.

Luis Enrique, GRAMMY®-award winning salsa artist, understands the plight of undocumented workers first hand; he was once one himself.  He shared his experience of coming to America when he was 10.  He personally knows the struggle that immigrants have to keep food on the table and a roof overhead without legal documentation.  He couldn’t go to college because he didn’t have papers.  His determination to “make it” is what kept his dream alive.  “We need to be able to pass these laws,” Enrique said, “and focus on what’s humanly right for immigrants who come to this country.”

GRAMMY-winner Luis Enrique Shares His Personal Immigration Story
IBC Bank's Eddie Aldrete Addresses the Workforce Implications of Immigration Reform

The Bigger Picture—Negative Effects on the Workforce
Eddie Aldrete, executive vice president of IBC Bank
, said that immigration reform remains vital to the workforce of this country.  He compared immigration reform to an iceberg.  Reform opponents focus on the tip of the iceberg—concern over the perception of granting amnesty and the “what part of ‘illegal’ don’t you get” mentality.  “They don’t look at the whole picture,” Aldrete said.  It’s what is underneath the iceberg’s surface that can sink an “unsinkable” ship.  “Shortages of workers from healthcare to engineering to energy to food service” will be the result.  Aldrete noted that the elderly population is expected to double at a time when many physicians are getting ready to retire.  He stressed, “When you have gifted people who are here and are desperately needed in the workforce, they need to be part of the workforce.”  Right now, the United States is exporting low-skilled jobs to Mexico and high-skilled jobs to Canada.  That is not an effective, long-term strategy.

Among the other workforce concerns expressed, Muñoz cited that failing to move forward with immigration reform has a negative effect on all workers in our society. “When you have 10 to 11 million people who are exploitable,” she said, “it undercuts the security and wages of our entire workforce.  We want to make sure all workers in this country have protection so there is a level playing field.”

Finally, Rep. Gutiérrez reflected on the tremendous economic upside to an orderly process that brings these workers legally into our society. “Think about 12 million [people] in our society getting hope,” he said. “Just think of what that will do. They will buy homes; they will buy cars. This is the civil rights issue of our community.”

The Economic Imperative
Sen. Menendez urged attendees to think of the economy as a catalyst for reform, rather than an impediment to it.  He noted that lower-paying jobs provide an underpinning for higher-paying jobs, such as hotel managers and chefs. For businesses to have and serve customers, both types of jobs are equally necessary.  He expressed how New Jersey farmers—as well as farmers around the country—need us to get the immigration issue resolved.  Farmers are paying decent wages and yet can’t find people to do those jobs.  He stressed that failing to pass immigration reform depresses wages and creates an underclass that undercuts the wages of all U.S. workers.  Immigration reform is needed so that undocumented workers will be paying taxes and not depressing wages of other sectors.

Sen. Bob Menendez Explains the Importance of Immigration Reform for the Economy

The Need to Reframe the Discussion
Sen. Menendez had stated earlier in the discussion that, for effective reform, the public debate needed to change.  Session moderator José Díaz-Balart challenged panelists by asking how to effectively change the discussion.

Aldrete’s response was that the discussion should be about the consequences of our failure to act.  He cited that, as a result of labor shortages, the FBI and DEA have lowered their gang and drug standards among its recruits. “It’s a problem when someone who has been in a gang is now on the police force,” he said.  

In addition to needing people to pick crops and fill other entry-level positions, panel members noted that our nation needs to prepare for the retirement of baby boomers.  There are lots of retirements looming, and those workers will need to be replaced.

View the Photo Gallery from the CHCI Public Policy Conference Monday Afternoon Plenary.