immigration rally
(Nam Y. Huh/AP)
May 02, 2013

Dream Fund Scholarship Date Pushed Back

A program awarding scholarships to immigrant students in Illinois has pushed back the date it planned to give out the money. Scholarships were supposed to go out in April, but that was timeframe was moved to June 7 because of the large number of people who applied.

The Illinois Dream Fund offers financial aid to students who are living in the United States illegally or students living in the country legally who don't qualify for any type of federal student aid.

Tanya Cabrera, who oversees the Dream Fund, said she received 1,400 applications in the last several months, more than twice what she expected.

“It was just really overwhelming because we didn’t think we’d get that many applications, and now to have that turnout in a month was just unrealistic,” she said. “Each applicant is worthy, but we also have to understand how many can we give out.”

Cabrera said postponing the award date from the end of April to June will give the Dream Fund more time to raise additional scholarship money.

“Looking at the applications, and just hearing the stories of these students,” Cabrera explained. “You’re empowered to do more. The goal is to raise this money and make it happen for 100 plus if we can.”

Cabrera said the Dream Fund has raised more than a million dollars so far, but she said she would like to get to $5 million.

The program was set up by the Illinois Dream Act, which is a law that increases immigrant students’ access to college. However, scholarship money comes from private donations.


American farms like this iceberg lettuce field owned by Duda Farm Fresh Foods outside Salinas, Calif., are facing a dwindling supply of farmworkers from rural Mexico.
(Kirk Siegler/NPR)
April 30, 2013

Why An Immigration Deal Won't Solve Farmworker Shortage

The Salinas Valley in Northern California grows about 80 percent of the country's lettuce, and it takes a lot of people to pick and pack it.

In a field owned by Duda Farm Fresh Foods, a dozen lechugueros, or lettuce pickers, are bent at the waist, cutting heads of iceberg lettuce. They work frantically to stay in front of a line of 12 more packers, who seal them with tape and toss them onto a conveyor belt.

"There's a lot more going on here than meets the eye," says Sammy Duda, the company's vice president. "The way the lettuce is trimmed is much more difficult to do if you don't trim it properly."

Duda hires 1,000 or more field workers every harvest, paying them about $12 an hour. Many don't have papers, but Duda says he has no other choice. Hardly any Americans apply for these jobs, he says, and most who do, don't stay.

"This has always been an immigrant job, whether it's, like I say, back from the Dust Bowl group," Duda says. "This is not a new phenomenon."

Labor shortages aren't a new phenomenon, either, in this valley made famous by John Steinbeck. But things have gotten worse lately.

A lot of the migrant workers who came from rural Mexico are getting too old for this back-breaking work, and their kids don't want to do it at all.

"It's hard, because I've been working in the fields for like 12 years now," says 29-year-old Marco Lara.

He says many of his extended family and friends back in his native Mexican state of Michoacan don't want to cross the border right now. Hiring a "coyote" costs a lot more than it once did, and the border is a lot more dangerous.

"There's people that just don't want to risk coming here," Lara says. "I [lost] two friends on the border three years ago."

Duda says the proposed immigration overhaul bill might solve some of these problems. For one, it would give thousands of workers a path to legal residency and make it easier for others to enter the U.S. But he says those things are probably just stopgap fixes.

"It'll help us in the short term. The long term? Remains to be seen," Duda says.

Since the late 1990s, there has been a slow but steady decline in the number of rural Mexicans migrating north. Agriculture economist Ed Taylor at the University of California, Davis, says that decline has little to do with U.S. immigration policy.

Taylor's research suggests that declining birth rates in rural Mexico, where the economy has also improved in recent years, is the reason why fewer migrants are coming to the U.S. And since farms in Mexico have also expanded to meet the year-round produce demands north of the border, why risk going north?

"Many [American] farmers also have this sense that, if Washington can just get its house in order and pass immigration reform, their problems will be over, and that isn't what our research is showing," Taylor says.

Farms here are going to have to learn how to do more with less immigrant labor, Taylor says. That means switching to less labor-intensive crops, or mechanization.

In the Salinas Valley town of Gonzales, Frank Maconachy with the company Ramsay Highlander may have an answer for farmers worried about big labor shortages.

"The labor resource is dwindling, so we needed to develop a machine that could mechanically cut ... efficiently, effectively, safely and get the crop to market competitively," he says.

That machine is an automatic spinach harvester. His company custom builds them to suit individual farmers' needs — different blades and equipment to pick celery, for example. But the main point is it reduces the need for workers.

"One operator can now harvest 12- to 15,000 pounds of spinach or baby leaf in an hour, where typically a crew of 30 people would be on their hands and knees cutting this with knives and would do half of that volume at best," Maconachy says.

But efficiency comes with a price: $250,000 for one of these machines.

Sammy Duda isn't quite ready to make that kind of investment. Machines can't do everything, he says. "It's very difficult to duplicate the eyes and the feel of a worker when it comes to maturity and quality of the crop."

Even as he focuses on the current immigration bill and whether it will help him get enough workers to get through these next few years, he knows his business is going to have to change. Technology once radically changed this valley when refrigeration allowed iceberg lettuce to be shipped all over the country.

"This particular valley was founded on innovation," he says. "There's a lot of bright people that have their radar going, and so as labor issues change, we adapt or we die."


Frances Herbert, right, and her wife, Takako Ueda, pose for photos with their dog, Little Bear, at their home in Dummerston, Vt., Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011.
(Matthew Cavanaugh/AP)
April 24, 2013

Gay Rights Groups: Don’t Leave Us Out of Immigration Bills

Some gay rights groups in Illinois are now applying their own political pressure in the fight to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, as they worry a final deal could leave same-sex couples in the lurch.

The political difficulty of recognizing same-sex couples in U.S. immigration law was on display Monday, when U.S. Reps. Luis Gutierrez, a liberal Chicago Democrat, and Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican and former GOP vice presidential nominee, made stops in Chicago to plug their ideas for an immigration overhaul in the House.

Bipartisanship and compromise were the buzzwords of the day, until someone in the audience at a downtown luncheon asked whether Gutierrez thought the immigration changes would recognize same-sex relationships.

“And I will fight for it, but I do not believe it will be in a bill,” Gutierrez said, adding that he supported the idea, but was concerned about its ability to gain support in Congress.

After a long pause, Ryan, who opposes same-sex marriage, chimed in.

“So I’m gonna stick with just the immigration stuff here,” he said, giving a nervous laugh.

The exchange illustrates the political challenge of including so-called bi-national same-sex couples in an immigration overhaul, particularly in the GOP-led House of Representatives, where cobbling together bipartisan support for an immigration bill is already a tall order, even without tossing in the hot-button issue of gay rights.

But some activists in Chicago say recognition for same-sex couples must be included. They were surprised that Gutierrez seemed to declare the idea dead on arrival, even before a House bill has been introduced.

Recognition in U.S. immigration law would mean a same-sex relationship could be grounds to grant legal status to a foreign spouse, or to prevent their deportation. It could also help gay foreign couples who are working in the U.S. on visas.

Those laws currently apply only to heterosexual couples because federal law defines marriage as being between one man and one woman, though the U.S. Supreme Court is now reviewing the issue.

That provision could have a big impact on the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender immigrants who are now in the U.S. illegally – about 267,000 people, according to an estimate from the Williams Institute, a think tank that researches LGBT legal issues.

Gutierrez’s political calculus doesn’t sit well Julio Rodriguez. He chairs the LGBTQ Immigration Rights Coalition of Chicago, which advocates for gay rights in immigration law.

“You can’t pick and choose when you wanna be our allies,” Rodriguez said, adding that full recognition for same-sex couples is the right thing to do, regardless of political difficulties.

“We helped elect many of those folks who are sitting in Congress that are our allies,” he said. “We’ve provided financial resources, we’ve provided people on the ground, and we expect a return on that investment.”

Recognition for same-sex couples is not included in the sweeping immigration overhaul bill introduced in the Democrat-controlled Senate last week, though gay rights activists say they’re lobbying Illinois’ Senators to have it included via a later amendment.

But Gutierrez’s suggestion that it may not be included in a House version came as news to some of his allies in Chicago’s gay rights community.

“That is very surprising to me,” said Jane Merrill, with the Center on Halsted, an LGBTQ community center on Chicago’s North Side. “Though the bi-national same-sex couple provision was on in there, there was a lot of positive feeling that it would be.”

Passing immigration reform and recognizing same-sex couples in immigration law shouldn't be mutually exclusive, Merrill said.

But Randy Hannig, Director of Public Policy at Equality Illinois, suggested his group’s lobbying efforts will remain focused on the Senate for the time being.

“We realize just how hard a lot of our issues [will] be to make it through both chambers before we make it to the president’s desk,” Hannig said. “I guess for lack of a better term, we’re definitely keeping it real.”

Gutierrez, for his part, said in an interview with WBEZ on Tuesday he wants to include same-sex couples in an immigration overhaul. He pointed to his longtime support of gay rights, though in the past, he’s gone back on forth on how hard to push for them when it comes to his trademark issue of immigration reform.

Now, as one of the key Democrats working to navigate a massive immigration overhaul through the GOP-led House, Guiterrez said he’s simply being realistic when he tells his allies in the gay rights movement that the votes aren’t there.

“You shouldn’t pander,” he said. “You shouldn’t raise false expectations. That’s not what I expect from a friend and an ally.”

Gutierrez said he hopes to introduce the House immigration overhaul bill he’s drafting with Rep. Ryan in a few weeks. But the whole question could be moot by the end of June, when the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the federal definition of marriage.

April 23, 2013

Bill Grants Indiana Tuition for Some Immigrants

Indiana legislators have approved allowing in-state tuition rates for people who entered the country illegally and were attending a public college when a state immigration law passed two years ago.

The Senate voted 34-15 Monday in favor of the bill, which was previously approved by the House.

Supporters say the change would help a couple hundred students who had the rules changed on them after they had already started work on their college degrees. They say many of those students came to Indiana as young children and have been caught in the middle of the national debate over immigration laws.

Affected immigrants still couldn't receive state college financial aid and new students wouldn't be eligible for in-state tuition.

The bill now goes to the governor for consideration.

April 01, 2013

Immigration Deal At Hand, Focus Turns to Details

Big business and big labor have settled on a political framework for an immigration overhaul. Now, the lawmakers writing bipartisan legislation need to resolve the nitty-gritty — and keep their parties' political flanks mollified.

Business and labor negotiators late last week agreed on a deal that would allow tens of thousands of low-skilled workers into the country and pay them fair wages. It was a last major sticking point before the deal goes to the eight senators — four Democrats, four Republicans — to sign off on the details and propose legislation. They are looking to set in motion the most dramatic changes to the faltering U.S. immigration system in more than two decades.

"There are a few details yet. But conceptually, we have an agreement between business and labor, between ourselves that has to be drafted," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

The so-called Gang of Eight's plan would provide a new class of worker visas for low-skilled workers, secure the border, crack down on employers, improve legal immigration and create a 13-year pathway to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants already here.

"With the agreement between business and labor, every major policy issue has been resolved," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who brokered the labor-business deal.

But that effort hasn't taken the form of a bill and the senators searching for a compromise haven't met about the potential breakthrough. They plan to introduce their framework when they return from recess the week of April 8 and move quickly to schedule a vote.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said the hard part is done.

"That doesn't mean we've crossed every 'i' or dotted every 't,' or vice versa," Flake said.

But even as the final stages of talks begin, one member of the group urged colleagues not to get too far ahead of themselves. Just before lawmakers began appearing on Sunday shows to discuss the breakthrough, Sen. Marco Rubio warned he was not ready to lend his name — and political clout — to such a deal without hashing out the details.

"Reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed on a legislative proposal are premature," said Rubio, a Florida Republican who is among the lawmakers working to write the legislation.

Rubio, a Cuban-American who is weighing a presidential bid in 2016, is a leading figure inside his party. Lawmakers will be closely watching any deal for his approval, and his skepticism about the process did little to encourage optimism.

Rubio, who is the group's emissary to conservatives, called the agreement "a starting point" but noted 92 senators from 43 states haven't yet been involved in the process.

That's where figures such as Rubio and assistant Democratic leader Dick Durbin of Illinois come in. Both will be able to give political cover to — or coax — members of their party who were not involved in drafting this agreement that could allow an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to earn U.S. citizenship.

"As to the 11 million, they'll have a pathway to citizenship, but it will be earned, it will be long, and it will be hard, and I think it is fair," Graham said.

A week ago, such a compromise seemed impossible.

Then the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO labor coalition reached its deal late Friday to allow tens of thousands of low-skilled workers into the country to fill jobs in construction, restaurants and hotels.

Schumer negotiated the deal between Chamber of Commerce head Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka during a late Friday phone call. Under the compromise, the government would create a new "W" visa for low-skilled workers, who would earn the same wages paid to Americans or the prevailing wages for the industry they're working in, whichever is higher. The Labor Department would determine prevailing wage based on customary rates in specific localities, so it would vary from city to city.

The detente between the powerful business lobbying group and the nation's leading labor federation still needs senators' approval, including a nod from Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican whose previous efforts came up short. He has returned to the negotiating table yet again.

The immigration debate already has President Barack Obama's attention.

"This is a legacy item for him," said David Axelrod, a longtime political confidant of Obama. "There is no doubt in my mind that he wants to pass comprehensive immigration reform."

Graham was interviewed Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." Schumer, Flake and Axelrod appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press."

March 29, 2013

Judge: Indiana Senators Can't Defend Immigration Law

A federal judge has rebuffed three Indiana lawmakers who asked to be allowed to step into a legal dispute over the state's immigration law after the attorney general declined to defend it.

U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker ruled Friday that allowing the senators to intervene would give legislators a trump card over the powers granted to the attorney general by the state Constitution.

The lawmakers said the attorney general effectively nullified their votes when he opted not to defend sections of a 2011 Indiana immigration law Barker had barred from taking effect.

The attorney general's office said in July it would recommend that Barker strike down most of the portions of the Indiana law that enable police to make warrantless arrests based on certain common immigration documents.

February 26, 2013

Bill Seeks In-State Tuition for Some Immigrants

A bill approved Tuesday in the Indiana Senate would allow some undocumented immigrants to be eligible for in-state college tuition.

The measure applies to students who were attending Indiana public colleges when the state's immigration law was passed two years ago.

State Sen. Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg) sponsoring the bill. She said Indiana cannot wait for the federal government to make a college education more affordable for undocumented immigrants, many of whom applied for a federal temporary amnesty program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

“Most of these students are applying for Deferred Action,” Leising said. “Now, it’s my understanding that it takes four-to-six months for Deferred Action to be approved. But even with Deferred Action in Indiana, they will not be able to get in-state tuition without this bill passing.”

Under her measure, Leising maintains undocumented immigrants still could not receive state college financial aid, and new students would not be eligible for in-state tuition.

State Sen. Mike Delph (R- Carmel) worries the measure infringes on federal immigration law, and the rights of international students who lawfully come to Indiana.

“We’re going to open up ourselves up to a lawsuit by international students who lawfully come to the United States to study who have to pay out of state tuition,” Delph said. “So, we’re basically giving a break to folks unlawfully in the country, who are good people. That’s not the issue, but we’re going to make foreign students that come here lawfully pay out of state tuition. I think there’s some real legal problems with this.”

Some immigrants say they have quit college because of skyrocketing tuition costs.

The Senate voted 35-15 to move the bill to the House.

Lupita and Valente Garcia
(Sean Powers/WILL)
February 21, 2013

Neighbors: Lupita Garcia

Illinois Public Media’s "Neighbors" series is designed to introduce us all to our neighbors here in east central Illinois. If you have an interesting neighbor you think we should know about, tell us – you can e-mail us at

Read More

February 21, 2013

Bill in Indiana Seeks In-State Tuition for Some Immigrants

Indiana lawmakers are considering rolling back the state's two-year-old immigration law so that undocumented immigrants who were attending public colleges then would again be eligible for in-state tuition rates.

An Indiana University official estimates it has about 200 current or former students who could be eligible.

Bill sponsor Sen. Jean Leising of Oldenburg says the change would be a sign of fairness to those students, many of whom came to Indiana as young children. She says undocumented immigrants still couldn't receive state college financial aid and new students wouldn't be eligible for in-state tuition.

Some immigrant students told the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday that they had to quit college after their tuition bills tripled.

The committee voted 8-4 to approve the bill, sending it to the full Senate.

class for immigrants who are applying for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
(Rebecca Breyer/AP)
February 19, 2013

Glimpse of What Legal Status Means for the Undocumented

What would it look like for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country to come out of the shadows and join the legal workforce? We’ve gotten a sneak peek through a federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which went into effect last year.

It allows some immigrants brought to this country as children to temporarily postpone deportation and work here legally. So far, more than 150,000 young people have been approved. To see how Deferred Action is working, we looked at its impact on two recipients living in Los Angeles.

Miguel Carvente instructs kids in English and Spanish at a dual-language kindergarten near downtown. In some ways, he’s also teaching by example. Carvente came to this country from Mexico when he was 5. He didn’t even think about his legal status until he got older.

“It sort of hit me when I realized that a lot of things were being closed to me because I lacked certain documentation,” Carvente said.

After high school, he worked a variety of menial jobs -- sewing clothes in a garment factory, stocking shelves in a liquor store -- all paid under the table.

“They paid way below minimum wage. And so, that was sort of something you aspired to, to earn minimum wage,” he said.

He put himself through UCLA and got a teaching credential, but then his career hit a roadblock.

“The majority of my peers were applying for jobs and visiting schools," said Carvente. "It’s sort of disheartening to know that they’re getting a job somewhere. I knew that I was just as qualified as they were.”

Last fall, Carvente got a break when the government granted him Deferred Action. So, for the next two years, he won’t face deportation and can work here legally. Now, Carvente gets paid around $150 to teach for four hours.

“When I first got my paycheck from the first few days here, I was very surprised at how much I received. And how much a difference just having that work-permit made in terms of your earning power,” he said.

Across town, 20-year-old Arian Nava was equally thrilled to get her first paycheck of $307.

“It was great," said Nava. "It was just such a sense of relief that I no longer had to, to do it under the table. That it was no longer illegal for me to work."

Nava is a student at Los Angeles Trade Technical College. For the last three months, she’s worked as a receptionist at the college, helping people who want to transfer to a four-year university.

Before she got this job, she struggled to pay the tuition of $460 a semester. Then, she was legally barred from working. “Before, it was just really, really difficult to even study for a test and know that I might not even get the actual grade because I didn’t have the money to pay for that class,” said Nava.

If Nava had been documented when she graduated from high school, she might be in a different profession.

“Actually, when I graduated from high school, I was certified to go directly into nursing, because I got that background being in a health academy," Nava said. "And I couldn’t go into any hospitals because they require documentation.”

Nava is grateful for the chance to join the ranks of the documented workforce. But she still worries about her parents, who live under constant threat of deportation and because her reprieve is temporary.

“It is only for two years. That’s the scary part,” she said.

Back in his kindergarten class, 28-year-old Miguel Carvente also wonders how long his good luck will last. The Deferred Action program only covers people under the age of 31. The current rules allow people like Carvente, who have already qualified, to apply for an extension. But nothing is guaranteed.

“So that’s my biggest worry. That I’ll be 31, and I’ll suddenly be out of the program and sort of be stuck back where I started a few years ago,” said Carvente.

Until then, he is in legal limbo. Along with more than 150,000 other young immigrants who’ve been granted Deferred Action, Carvente is unsure if his economic future will be bright, or a return to the shadows.

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