When we're talking about human beings, we shouldn't be as inflexible as sometimes we've been, especially on immigration issues. —Mark Alvarez
SALT LAKE CITY — At a recent meeting at Day Riverside Library, a group of immigrants from several Latin American countries met to discuss what they hope comes with comprehensive immigration reform.
Among the many questions that flew in both English and Spanish came this most basic yet problematic inquiry: "Who should get immigration reform?"
One man, who has worked in construction and other labor jobs, suggested the hope for immigrants lies with the younger generation, especially those trained in science, technology, engineering and math fields.
Then a woman in her 50s spoke up. She said she has worked more than a decade in a hotel washing sheets and cleaning bathrooms, saving what she could.
"¿Y que de mi?" she asked calmly. "What about me?"
Her question is among those at the heart of the immigration debate playing out this week in Washington, D.C., and throughout the country in small gatherings of those who came to the country illegally and who now are trying to understand how their lives could be improved.
The difficulty of the process was on display Monday as angry words were exchanged at the Judiciary Committee as it began its second hearing on legislation designed to strengthen border security, allow tens of thousands of both highly skilled workers and low-skilled workers into the country and eventually provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million people living in the country illegally.
The anger centered on controversy surrounding the two young men accused of bombing the Boston Marathon. Both immigrants to the country, the attack has cast a new dimension on immigration reform and some fear it could hijack the process.
But those concerns were far removed from the hall at Day Riverside Library. When the discussion ended, the nameless woman wondering whether immigration reform would ever benefit someone like her returned home to prepare for another long day at work, leaving without an answer to her small but complex question.
"When we're talking about human beings, we shouldn't be as inflexible as sometimes we've been, especially on immigration issues," immigration attorney and activist Mark Alvarez said. "We shouldn't separate immigrants into good immigrants and bad immigrants ... but I know at some point, for practical reasons, we're going to have some kind of argument about that."
The question of who should benefit from immigration reform was raised again days later when members of the Salt Lake Dream Team mobilized on April 3 to plead on behalf of Brenda Guzman, a young mother who they were told would be deported to her native Mexico in less than 24 hours, leaving behind five U.S. citizen children.
Yolanda Sandoval, Guzman's mother, wept openly as she hovered over her grandchildren, ranging in age from barely a year to 6 years old.
"She's not a criminal," Saldoval repeated several times in Spanish, speaking on her daughter's behalf while she was detained at the Spanish Fork immigration and customs enforcement detention center. "She just needed to get diapers and buy food for her children."
But Guzman has a criminal record.
Reportedly facing eviction at the age of 22, Guzman was arrested and convicted of providing what she said was an invented Social Security number to a payday lender. The number belonged to a young boy in Vernal, according to court documents.
Guzman pleaded guilty to reduced charges of attempted forgery and attempted identity theft, both class A misdemeanors. However, in the eyes of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, those charges remained classified as aggravated felonies, qualifying Guzman for expedited removal when she failed to appear at two review hearings for her case.
Salt Lake Dream Team member Raymi Gutierrez stood at Sandoval's side, fighting tears as she explained she was willing to stand up for a woman guilty of bad decisions.
"She's a human being, and she makes mistakes," Gutierrez said. "I understand that people are looking to what's fair, according to law, but in my eyes the law is unjust ... look at the human issue in this, the human issue of immigration. It's lives that are at stake."
Supporters lobbying for a stay of deportation on Guzman's behalf saw a glimpse of hope when she wasn't deported the next day, petitioning Utah congressmen and senators to write letters supporting her case. But the days passed, media attention shifted, and a week later Guzman was gone, returning to the country she hadn't seen since she was 6 years old.
Dream Team members have lobbied on behalf of several equally imperfect candidates in the hope of keeping their families together, and say they will continue to do so.
"We feel the pain" of families torn apart by a "broken immigration system," Gutierrez said.
For those who have run afoul of the U.S. criminal justice system, there is likely no hope of citizenship or legal residency and no option of rehabilitation or restitution, no matter what reforms pass, Alvarez said. In the future, he hopes to see that change.
"People with some criminal record, I think, with the legalization program, should be given an opportunity to present their case as to why they should be able to stay here," Alvarez said.
Through years of defending and supporting immigration cases, Alvarez has examined the few but complex routes to residency or citizenship.
"Immigration law, it's sometimes talked about, is the second-most complex area of law, behind tax law," he said.
Alvarez supports a simpler system, with lower fees for those seeking legal status and less bureaucracy hindering their application. Streamlining the process would also reduce the often overwhelming legal costs standing between immigrants and a chance to live in the country legally.
Alvarez isn't currently representing clients, campaigning instead in immigration events and offering advice for free in small meetings, seeking to educate the community.
Because most people in the country illegally currently have no recourse to pursue legal status, Alvarez's advice, for now, is simply to wait and see whether a measure of comprehensive immigration reform survives Congress.
The reforms under debate Monday come from a bipartisan bill revealed last week by eight senators, including prominent Republicans John McCain, R-Arizona, and Marco Rubio, R-Florida, alongside Democrats Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and Dick Durbin, D-Illinois.
Both parties are passing the bill back and forth, trying to cut and shape it to their liking while they have the chance. Caught in the middle is the country's considerable undocumented population.
The majority currently face a minimum three to 10 years outside the country should they leave to apply for a visa. Others have black marks on their record from previous years, disqualifying them from current, and likely future, paths to residency or citizenship.
The original bill emphasized strengthening the border, making it more difficult to cross illegally, and simplifying the immigration process. Once the border is sufficiently secure, those already in the country would have a pathway to citizenship requiring they pay a fine, prove employment and pay applicable taxes.22 comments on this story
Those in the country illegally will be required to move to the "back of the line" behind those already in the application process, and won't be eligible for legal status for 10 years.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll published last week reveals just over half the country, an estimated 54 percent, believe immigration adds to the nation's character. As much as 2/3 of Americans, including eight-out-of-10 Latinos, said they support a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally.
The poll also revealed an uptick in Republican support for immigration reform, when the proposal includes fines or penalties.