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Local impact of immigration reform is unclear

Tuesday, January 29, 2013 - 12:01 am

Immigration reform clearly has new energy behind it in Washington. A bipartisan group of senators Monday announced a comprehensive immigration deal, and President Obama was set to address the topic Tuesday.

But it's hard to say exactly how many people a so-called “path to citizenship” would affect in the Fort Wayne area.

“I can tell you the impact would be really, really important,” said Max Montesino, board president of the Hispanic Leadership Coalition of Northeast Indiana. “We have a sizeable population of undocumented immigrants here, many of whom have been here for a long time.”

But estimating the local illegal immigrant population is tricky, and even advocates for the local Hispanic community disagree on the actual number of people living and working here illegally.

Montesino said more than 1,000 Hispanic illegal immigrants are likely living and working in Allen County. But Herb Hernandez, local director of United Hispanic Americans, said there's no evidence of a population that great.

Of the county's roughly 24,000 Hispanics, Hernandez estimated that less than 1 percent – just a few hundred – are illegal immigrants. But he pointed out that there also may be local illegal immigrants from Asia, Europe and Africa.

“What is the actual number? Nobody really knows,” Hernandez said.

A path to citizenship would allow illegal immigrants already working here to be legally employed, send their children to college at in-state tuition rates, get driver's licenses and receive other benefits, such as Social Security and Medicaid.

“There's a lot of things that U.S. citizens take for granted, and that's the reason these individuals would like a path to citizenship,” Hernandez said.

Montesino said many illegal immigrants already contribute to the community. Some raise families, go to church and work in fields such as construction and farming, he said. Others are here alone to earn money and send it back to their children.

“It would be a tremendous impact, and many of them would come out of the shadows if this reform of immigration passes Congress,” he said.

Hernandez, meanwhile, is skeptical of talk about comprehensive reform because previous proposals have ultimately led nowhere. And he questioned what criteria illegal immigrants would need to meet to be eligible for citizenship.

“The devil's in the details,” he said.