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Oregon Democrat and 1st Congressional District urge 11 groups to back renewed effort in Congress.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici urged advocates from 11 community groups to rally around the latest congressional effort to overhaul the nation's immigration system.Bonamici

The Democrat from Beaverton, who represents the 1st Congressional District that includes Newberg and Dundee, spoke Feb. 19 at a virtual roundtable discussion one day after she and other House and Senate cosponsors unveiled the 353-page bill.

Bonamici said she hopes the third time will be the charm with President Joe Biden, who has moved quickly with presidential orders to repeal or put on hold the actions of former President Donald Trump, a harsh critic of longstanding U.S. immigration policies. Previous attempts to overhaul the nation's immigration system failed under Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama.

Biden had announced he would seek such legislation when he took office Jan. 20.

"It's past time we reform our immigration system," Bonamici said. "It's not going to be an easy task. But I am hopeful this administration has the appetite and the heart to focus on this issue — and having the United States of America be what we say we are.

"It seems like a long four years … with all the asylum seekers who were incarcerated and all the families who were separated. But finally, we have an opportunity to work for solutions. I hope that brings new energy and a revitalized effort to get this done."

Representatives from nine of the 11 groups told Bonamici they like what they have heard, even if they have been unable to digest all the details yet.

"We know that it is overdue," Alaide Vilchis, executive director of Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice, said.

John Herrera, director of immigration legal services for Catholic Charities of Oregon, said the legislation reaffirms the policy set out in the Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished national quotas and made family reunification the priority.

"We can get passed something meaningful in Congress and help in reunification for all of these families," he said.

Mustering support

Representatives from, among others, Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center — which runs clinics in Washington and Yamhill counties and has a location in Newberg — urged add-ons, such as additional mental health counseling and economic aid for immigrants, including help with application fees that escalated during the Trump administration. For young people shielded from deportation, the initial application fee jumped from $460 to $695; for permanent residency, from $1,760 to $2,860; and for citizenship, $640 to $1,170.

Bonamici, who is the granddaughter of immigrants from Italy, said immigrants pull their economic weight.

"I am thinking about all the people who are here, running their own businesses and are employers and making contributions. and the frontline workers who are providing the food we eat," she said. "They are such a critical part of our community."

Bonamici and Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio made their own trip to the border with Mexico 13 months ago to check out conditions for asylum seekers, who were detained in Mexico under a Trump policy while their applications were pending. Under Biden, the Department of Homeland Security is setting up a new process to deal with those applications.

What the legislation does

The broader legislation being sponsored by Bonamici and others would provide a path to U.S. citizenship for an estimated 11 million people who lack immigration documents. They would be eligible to apply for permanent legal residency after five years, if they meet specified conditions, and apply for full citizenship three years later.

Some young people brought to the United States illegally as children — known as "Dreamers" — and some farmworkers who can prove work history can seek permanent legal residency without the five-year wait.

The Democratic-led House passed a bill in mid-2019 to strengthen the legal status of Dreamers, who were shielded from immediate deportation under an executive order from Obama in 2012. (Trump repealed the order in 2017, but courts blocked him). The Senate, then under Republican control, let the House bill die without a vote.

In 2007, a bipartisan effort led by President George W. Bush and Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy for a comprehensive bill failed in the Senate. In 2013, when Obama was president, a similar effort passed the Senate 68-32, but Republican leaders declined to bring it up in the House, fearing it would split their majority.

Bonamici, then in her first full term, said she thinks enough Republicans would have joined Democrats to pass it.

"I share the disappointment that we have fallen short in the past," she said. "I know from my time in Congress that it was not for lack of trying."

Both chambers now have tenuous Democratic majorities, particularly in the Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote. Given that the filibuster is still in effect, at least 10 Republicans must vote yes if all 50 Democrats stay together.

"I do not want to lose this opportunity, and I know the Biden-Harris administration does not, either," Bonamici said. "Then we really take the fight to the Senate."

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