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Latinos hope for immigration reform

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Rally supporters
Immigrant rights' supporters in Postville, Iowa, rallied last summer for hundreds of workers who were arrested from a meat-packing plant there, in May.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Like much of the country, Latinos in the Twin Cities were swept up in inauguration fever this week. 

Inside the Neighborhood House in Saint Paul, more than 100 immigrants and their advocates gathered to watch President Barack Obama make history Tuesday.

But as the revelry faded, many started wondering how -- and when -- the new administration will begin to tackle the issue nearest to them. 

Judith Ojeda
Judith Ojeda, 31, works with many Latinos in the Twin Cities, as a health access coordinator and The Neighborhood House in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

"Everybody's worried about the economy," said Judy Ojeda, who was born in Mexico and is now a U.S. citizen.

But, she said, they're also asking: "Are we going to be able to talk about immigration or [are] these four years going to be concentrated on the economy and the war?"

Ojeda works with immigrants, many of whom are undocumented. She said most of them are worried immigration reform has, at least for a while, fallen to the wayside. 

"That is a fear... that immigration will be in the back-burner, that it will be there but it won't be something that is taken very seriously," she said.

In fact, even before the economic downturn, Ojeda said Obama's comments on an immigration reform bill left her waiting for more details.

During the campaign, Obama spoke broadly of his support for a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

"That is a fear, that because of all the things that are going on, that immigration will be in the back-burner."

"I think it starts with having secure borders, I think we've got to be serious about having border surveillance, border security, using technology more effectively than we're using it right now," Obama said on his campaign website. 

But Ojeda says Obama's approach to boarder security does little for undocumented families who are already here and wondering how long they can stay and work. 

"There's families that... their life depends on it," she said. "Depending on the immigration laws that are coming in, what's going on, people that are going to be deported. There's so many things that families want to know now."

Still, the issue resonates differently depending on a person's legal status. 

A recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center shows that three in ten Latinos rate immigration as an extremely important issue facing the new administration. 

The survey found the economy tops the list as the most important issue for Latinos right now, according to Mark Hugo Lopez, an associate director at the Pew Center. 

For one, the unemployment rate among Latinos in December was 9.6 percent, compared to 7.2 percent for the U.S. overall, he said.  

Jorge Saavedra
Jorge Saavedra is an attorney and former executive director of Centro Legal, a non-profit community law office that provides legal assistance to low-income Latinos in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

But Lopez cautioned that increasing concern over the economy doesn't necessarily mean apathy over immigration.

"I think economy, education, immigration -- all of these issues are all intertwined," he said. "It's not that Latinos don't care about immigration policy and immigration reform, they likely do."

The Pew poll didn't specifically ask about immigration policy or potential legislation. But immigrant rights groups in Minnesota and around the country have called on Obama to push for a reform package that would put millions of undocumented immigrants on a path toward legalization.

An estimated 12 million workers live in the country illegally, and as many as 85,000 of them are in Minnesota, according to the federal government. 

Golden Valley-based attorney Jorge Saavedra works with many of these immigrants. He's the former head of Centro Legal, a non-profit firm based in the Twin Cities that specializes in immigration law.

While legislative reform may not happen immediately, Saavedra says there are plenty of day-to-day enforcement measure the new administration can take right away.

"Can we restore our emphasis on humanitarian aspects of immigration, like asylum?," he said. "We have the laws in place to be able to do that, without going to the Congress, without burdening so much the President's agenda, legislatively."

Saavedra said immigration is a defining issue among the fastest-growing group of new voters. And more than ever before, he said they'll be waiting to see how the new president will follow through on his promise of reform.