When CASA de Maryland was founded nearly 30 years ago, the community organization was providing basic social services to Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict in their home countries.
Back then, the biggest issue Latinos faced was adjusting to their new home. CASA de Maryland stepped in to help by providing Latinos with food, clothes, immigration assistance and even English classes. But as the Latino community grew and evolved, so did the list of issues Latinos were facing.
Today, at the beginning of the 2013 Hispanic Heritahe Month, Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland, said at the top of the list of issues for Latinos is getting Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill with a path to citizenship.
“It is probably the most critical issue for us, because if you resolve immigration reform, many issues will also be resolved,” Torres told VOXXI, adding that his organization has become a key partner in the national push for immigration reform.
Latinos care more about immigration reform than other issues
As the country celebrates 2013 Hispanic Heritahe Month, a recent Latino Decisions poll shows that immigration reform has indeed become the most important issue for many Latinos.
The poll shows that 58 percent of Latino voters rank immigration reform as the most important issue they want Congress and President Barack Obama to address. That’s up from 35 percent in November 2012. Coming in second is the economy and jobs with 38 percent, healthcare with 19 percent and education with 15 percent.
Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), had one explanation for why immigration reform has become so important for many Latinos. He said it is because of the personal connection they share with undocumented immigrants, most of whom are Latinos.
“Just about every Latino either has a relative, a friend or a co-worker who has an undocumented status,” Medina told VOXXI. “For us, we look at immigration reform through them and how it impacts them and how their lives would be better if we fix the system.”
Medina’s claim is backed by the Latino Decisions poll, which shows that 63 percent of Latino voters personally know someone who is undocumented and 39 percent personally know someone who has faced deportation or detention for immigration-related reasons.
Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said she thinks immigration reform has become a top issue for Latinos because they see how the current immigration polices are impacting immigrant families.
“We have, unfortunately, record numbers of deportations under the Obama administration,” Hincapié told VOXXI. “Every single day, we still have about 1,100 people being detained and deported. That ends up impacting entire families, U.S. citizen children, communities and businesses.”
Immigration reform is ‘the civil rights issue of our generation’
Latinos have put forward different reasons why Congress should pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
Many point to the economic benefits while others point to how it could help members of Congress, especially Republicans, make gains among Latino voters. And some say it is a matter of civil rights.
“This is a civil rights issue,” said Torres of immigration reform. “That is the way our community sees it. That is the reason why we are fighting together with our community, because we feel this is the civil rights issue of our generation.”
Medina feels similar to Torres. He said he sees the plight to pass immigration reform as “the new civil rights movement ” and added that there is a broad coalition of groups who support reform.
But Hincapié sees it differently.
“There are, unfortunately, a lot of unrealized promises and dreams as part of the civil rights movement, so I think we have to be cautious not to think about or talk about the immigrant rights movement or the fight for citizenship as the new civil rights movement,” she said.
“Instead, we should see it as building on the battles and the victories of the civil rights movement,” she continued.
Latinos face uphill battle to pass immigration reform bill
Recent efforts by Latinos to build momentum for immigration reform have proven to be effective, but Latinos still face an uphill battle to convince Congress to pass an immigration reform bill.
The Senate already passed an immigration reform bill in July. But efforts to pass a similar bill in the House have stalled as lawmakers deal with other issues, including the conflict in Syria.
With just over 30 days left in the legislative calendar, Latinos know time is running out for Congress to act on immigration reform. They are working to beat the clock, because they fear that the chances of passing an immigration reform bill next year are slim given that members of Congress will be focused on the midterm elections.
“There’s so much momentum, and I think we need to continue raising the stakes,” Hincapié said. “We need to continue raising the moral high ground and reminding the country about the importance and really the urgency to change our federal immigration policies.”
Medina said the strategy right now is to convince members of Congress to pass an immigration reform bill by sending them letters, making personal appeals and lobbying. But if Congress fails to pass a bill by the end of this legislative session, he warns that members of Congress will hear from Latinos and other voters at the polls during the 2014 elections.
“We are going to be working to make sure that all voters know how their members of Congress acted or did not act on immigration reform,” he said.