'All I could do was watch my mom cry'

Devin Banerjee | San Jose Mercury News | Link to Article

When Maria Esther's father fell sick in Mexico five years ago, she found herself tangled in a twisted web of immigration policy. An undocumented immigrant, Esther knew that returning to her homeland would end her future in America and keep her from her U.S.-born daughter, Monserrat Cabrera, also suffering from a serious illness at the time.

So Esther remained in San Jose while her father died south of the border.

"All I could do was watch my mom cry," said Monserrat, now 13. "Mom stayed with me instead of telling her dad goodbye."

Emotions were palpable Thursday night at San Jose's St. Patrick Proto-Cathedral, where hundreds of immigration reform advocates listened to testimonies from young, undocumented locals and reassurances from Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, that "the time for comprehensive immigration reform is now."

Despite a push by former President George W. Bush, Congress in 2006 and 2007 failed to pass immigration reform.

Lofgren, who chairs the House of Representatives' subcommittee on immigration, relayed President Barack Obama's commitment to change the nation's immigration policy. But she made clear that such legislation will be difficult to pass.

 "This is going to be a very tough fight," Lofgren said. "There's a reason it hasn't been done yet, and that's because it's hard to do."

The fight for health-care reform seems to be delaying -- if not overshadowing -- the immigration debate, but only for the moment, immigration activists say. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said "many times" that he will set aside time for immigration reform to be debated when Congress reconvenes in the fall, said Paul Donnelly, a longtime pro-immigration activist in Washington, D.C.

Donnelly said he believes passing immigration legislation "may actually be much easier than anyone expected," and he lauded the work of Lofgren and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is drafting legislation to present to Congress after Labor Day.

Pro-immigration activists say the legislation must be comprehensive -- addressing issues across the spectrum of immigration policy such as status verification, visa control and labor law -- to garner enough support to pass the Senate and the House.

And in the context of a recession, reform advocates are pushing the point that immigrants are key drivers of the economy, especially in California.

"Look at the immigration that is the lifeblood of San Jose -- it's an enormous engine for Silicon Valley's economy," Donnelly said. "We want to be serious about closing the back door to illegal immigration so that we can open the front door to legal immigration."

Obama, who pledged during his campaign to tackle immigration this year, has been criticized for not pushing the Democratic-controlled Congress hard enough. To counter that criticism, the president tapped Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano early in the summer to be the administration's point person for the debate.

The president, however, told Hispanic reporters at the White House on Friday that next year's congressional election campaigns will further complicate the debate. Obama also said he doesn't know if an immigration bill would have enough votes to pass Congress.

But for reform activists, especially those who are undocumented, the debate on immigration is more than politics -- it's their livelihoods.

Phalguni Laishram, 18, testified Thursday night that he's been accepted to a premedical program at the University of California-Riverside but is ineligible for financial aid because his Indian family's application for asylum hasn't been approved.

Nadia Webster, an 18-year-old who moved from Egypt to the South Bay when she was 3, is swirling in legal limbo because her recently deceased American stepfather never legally adopted her.

 "I consider myself an American," Webster said. "But I live like a second-class citizen."