When Candy Herrera turned 15, she asked her parents if she could get her driver’s permit. Their response was not what Herrera expected.
Herrera learned her family brought her to America illegally from Chili when she was four years old. She could not get her permit because she was undocumented.
The Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project estimates that as of March 2012, 11.7 million undocumented people are living in America. Under current immigration policy, there is little to nothing someone can do to become a legal resident if they are in the United States illegally, according to Gainesville’s Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice.
Herrera’s grandfather was able to file for amnesty in 1986 under Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act. IRCA, the last major immigration reform in the U.S., allowed for people who had entered the country illegally before January 1, 1982, to become legalized after paying a fine, back taxes, and admitting guilt.
“There’s a tremendous amount of shame you feel when you’re an undocumented person. I grew up in Palm Beach County. My family’s there, my friends are there, so it just seemed bizarre that I would feel so out of place in a city that had really all that I knew,” said Herrera.
Now that she is a legal resident, Herrera said she is advocating to change immigration policy nationally so others don’t have to experience the same hardships.
Herrera is working with Gainesville’s Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice, a coalition of over 20 churches, temples, and mosques in Gainesville who have formed a coalition to impact immigration reform nationally.
The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, or the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, would extend a pathway for citizenship among people who are currently undocumented in the U.S., Herrera said. Undocumented immigrants would have to live in the U.S. for 13 to 15 years, pay penalties, back taxes, and more.
“It’s not a kind bill, but it’s something,” Herrera said.
The bill was passed by the Senate and is now going to be voted on in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Dr. Paul Ortiz, a UF Latin American history expert, said House Republicans would rather vote on individual reform bills, or “piecemealing,” rather than seeing one comprehensive bill.
“In Florida, we have a few congressmen who are favoring piecemeal approaches, which are promoting what we call guest worker programs,” Ortiz said. Guest worker programs allow for someone outside the country, usually in agriculture, to come work for six months to one year while tied to an employer.
The problem with this approach, Ortiz said, is that each bill would only deal with people inside one sector and would not provide enough reform he said is needed.
The Interfaith Alliance is looking to put pressure locally on Representative Ted Yoho to support the comprehensive bill.
Yoho didn’t respond to requests for an interview, but his website said he supports immigration policy changes. He wants individual legislation for tighter border security, an increased guest worker program, streamlining the citizenship process, and English be made the official language.
Herrera, however, said the guest worker program is an excuse for cheap labor.
She said her goal is to organize the community aggressively enough to pressure Yoho into changing his mind and getting comprehensive immigration reform passed to prevent the breakup of families.
The Interfaith Alliance said they will continue to convince Yoho about the need for comprehensive, rather than piecemeal, reform. They also said that their work will not end there.
The bill is not yet ready for a vote in the House and is still being debated.