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COMMUNITY VOICE

Senate immigration bill would be a step forward for communities, businesses

Thursday, August 1, 2013 - 12:01 am

As director of ministry programs for The Lutheran Foundation, headquartered here in Indiana, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to see how new Americans like myself fit into the state’s community life. From congregations to campuses, I’ve observed how immigrants can strengthen our family values. After all, most of us come to Indiana from societies where family values are at the center of communal life.

Alongside those values often comes an ingrained dedication to hard work that drives economic growth. These social and economic contributions are why Indiana has so much to gain from immigration reform, and why I’m writing today to urge our elected officials to get S.744, the bill now poised for a Senate vote.

It’s important to keep in mind how much Indiana businesses have at stake in this vote. Indiana needs a stable labor force and job creators to stay competitive economically. This is where new Americans can and do have a huge impact. The daily labor that first-generation immigrants provide in cities like Indianapolis is not theoretical: It is real. Moreover, people who leave behind everything familiar — family, friends, jobs, home — to journey into the unknown are often entrepreneurial. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has found that immigrants create new businesses at a higher rate than native-born Americans. Their investment of personal capital and back-breaking work can revitalize neighborhoods.

These contributions stand in contrast to the drain that our broken immigration system imposes on America. It’s a status quo that often leaves families torn apart by deportations, businesses struggling to find productive workers and churches trying to keep fearful congregants from fleeing. Congress must pass immigration reform that deals with this crisis now — because keeping families together is vital to our congregations and communities, and because reform is smart for our economy and our country.

In reality, it’s not just me and other Lutherans across America who are speaking up for immigration reform. We’re united with the majority of Americans who are calling for reform that keeps families together and offers a roadmap to earned citizenship for 11 million aspiring new Americans.

When we look at how political squabbling has often impeded America’s progress, it has been wonderful to see a bipartisan consensus build up around S.744. The bill passed through the Judiciary Committee with support from members of both parties. This legislation would make improvements to our immigration system that would benefit both newcomers and U.S. citizens here in Indiana.

S.744 would achieve progress in five key areas. First, it would help protect families from separation and ensure a sufficient supply of visas for some families seeking to reunite with loved ones overseas. Second, it would provide a roadmap through which undocumented people could eventually earn citizenship. Third, it would improve the humane and just enforcement of immigration laws by lessening the use of immigrant detention and expanding community support programs. Fourth, it would boost the protection of U.S. citizen and migrant workers. Finally, it would create more efficient and compassionate processes to protect and welcome refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless people.

In keeping with family values, if the senators pass the bill in its present form, children would be among the biggest beneficiaries. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has observed that S.744 contains increased provision of counsel and legal protections for unaccompanied migrant children facing deportation and detention. It would also deliver improvements for refugee children in need of protection and children torn from their parents by immigration detention and deportation. These are critical measures in an era where all children need loving, healthy families, and many need protection from crimes like human trafficking.

S.744 is a good start, and would represent a step forward for Indiana’s communities and businesses. But the work of achieving fair, effective, and humane immigration reform is just starting. Now is the time for Republicans and Democrats to unite to protect S.744 from weakening changes. This is also the moment for bipartisan leadership to introduce similar — or even better — legislation in the House of Representatives. People of all faiths in Indiana stand behind immediate and fair immigration reform. Our elected officials should know that our communities — which are theirs, too — will benefit.

Yohannes Mengsteab, the director of ministry programs of The Lutheran Foundation, is a middle child of 9 brothers and sisters born and raised in Eritrea, East Africa. He came to the USA in 1983 as a refugee because of the 3- year-long Ethio-Eritrean war that ended in 1991.