WINDER - Immigration reform proposed Thursday would grant temporary legal status to the estimated 12 million illegal aliens in the United States. It would also allow them a path to obtain work visas and eventual citizenship.
Those proposed changes could affect Barrow County's population of both immigrants and citizens.
The Bush administration and a bipartisan group of senators reached an agreement Thursday that would overhaul the current immigration regulations. Under the proposed immigration reform bill as posted on the White House Web site (www.whitehouse.gov), illegal aliens who arrived in the United States before Jan. 1 would be eligible for a Z visa that could be renewed indefinitely. The alien must pay an initial $1,000 fine, then a remaining $4,000 fine within eight years. During those eight years, the worker could apply for permanent residency, but would have to have completed English language competency, return to their country of origin to file for the green card, get in line behind the current backlog of waiting immigrants and meet proposed merit-based requirements.
According to the Web site, some family members of U.S. citizens wait decades before being granted a visa. The proposed bill promises to clear that backlog within eight years.
A guest worker program would allow as many as 400,000 workers to enter the United States and work for two years. That number could be adjusted according to need. The guest worker visa could be renewed three times, but it would require the worker to return to their country of origin for one year between renewals.
Other points include border security improvements and a merit system for future immigrants.
If the proposed bill passes, it would benefit Barrow County by holding prices down, said Cindy, who asked that her last name not be used.
"It would be beneficial to all the people in the community," she said. "You think prices are high now? Try taking all the illegal workers out of the poultry plants and vegetable fields. Those plants would either shut down or prices would go sky high. Would you take a job picking vegetables or processing chickens for $5 an hour?"
The proposed bill could reunite families and give those who came here as young children the same rights as their U.S.-born siblings.
Lala Gonzales-Diaz, 32, of Winder is the matriarch of a family split between two nations. Her eldest daughter, a high school student, wants to go to college, but lacks legal status. The girl was born in Mexico and came illegally to the United States with her parents 11 years ago. The student considers the United States her home.
"I want my daughter to go to the university, but without papers, she will have to work as an illegal," Gonzales-Diaz said in Spanish.
The family's three younger children were born in the United States, making them American citizens with the opportunity to earn a college degree, possibly funded by scholarships or financial aid.
"Ni aqui, ni alla," is a popular saying among Mexicans who have lived many years in the US, meaning, "Neither here (United States), nor there (home country)," said Rene Juarez, owner of El Tucanazo Supermarket in Winder. He has lived in the U.S. for more than two decades and qualified for the amnesty program in 1986.
"After so many years, you don't understand the U.S. or your home," Juarez said in Spanish. "You have one foot in each country and don't quite belong in either one."
He sees the proposed bill as a way to help illegal workers who have no recourse when they are abused by employers.
"Sometimes workers get hired to do yard work, then they don't get paid and there is nothing they can do," Juarez said. He added that a cache of legal Hispanic workers would allow him to keep a good staff in his store.
Daniel Gonzales-Zepeda, 31, works in a Winder butcher shop to support his wife and two children, ages 7 and 5, in Mexico City. He hasn't seen his family in four years and hopes the proposed immigration reform will allow them to come to the United States.
"The life is better here," Gonzales-Zepeda said in Spanish. "The money, the work, the police enforce the laws. In the United States, I work six days and rest one. In Mexico, I rest seven days each week."
Scott Miller of Winder cautions against officials selectively enforcing laws.
"It's not fair to the legal immigrants who made all their sacrifices to come here," Miller said. "It sets a precedence to not abide by laws. I think it is a lousy idea. There is no leadership left in Washington if that bill goes through."