Immigration experts applaud first steps in D.C. toward reform

Margarita Saravia, 38, of Dobbs Ferry, hugs her

Margarita Saravia, 38, of Dobbs Ferry, hugs her tutor, Tom Pettit, of Dobbs Ferry, as Robin Larkins, director of Cabrini Immigrant Services in Dobbs Ferry, looks on. Saravia, originally from Mexico, will be sworn in as a U.S. citizen Feb. 6 in White Plains. (Jan. 28, 2013) (Credit: Faye Murman)

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The bipartisan approach to immigration reform unveiled Monday in Washington is a major step to the systemic overhaul that noncitizens and concerned Americans have been seeking desperately for years, said Hudson Valley immigration advocates.

"It looks like what is being proposed now is a comprehensive approach," said Robin Larkins, director of Cabrini Immigrant Services, a Dobbs Ferry nonprofit organization. "Everyone is in agreement that the system is broken, and the need for comprehensive reform is definitely something that is long overdue."

The plan could especially help immigrant families in the Hudson Valley, a region that has attracted immigrant families for more than a century.

"There are so many families of what we call mixed status, where some people may have citizenship and have their papers but some people don't, and they are in the same family," said Betsy Palmieri, executive director of the Cross River-based Hudson Valley Community Coalition, which advocates for immigrant rights. "There are a lot of families like that. They need a way to be able to stay together."

Others expressed relief that politicians finally are taking action amid a nationwide debate that long has been dominated by extremists.

"At least we're talking about reform instead of just saying, 'We absolutely can't or we absolutely must do one thing or the other,' " said Sister Susan Gardella, the executive director of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary Life Center, a Catholic nonprofit organization in Sleepy Hollow that provides services to immigrants.

Dubbed the Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, the proposal by a handful of U.S. senators would create a path to citizenship for the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country while also strengthening border control, cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants and tailoring immigration laws to the needs of the economy.

A handful of Democratic and Republican senators, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), released the proposal at a Washington news conference in anticipation of President Barack Obama laying out his ideas for immigration reform Tuesday.

"Other bipartisan groups of senators have stood in the same spot before, trumpeting similar proposals," Schumer said. "But we believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done. The politics on this issue have been turned upside down."

The advocates stressed that they need to know more details about the senators' proposal. They were particularly wary that it might be watered down as the president and Congress negotiate on a final legislative package in the coming months.

Gail Golden, co-chairwoman of the Rockland Immigrant Coalition, noted that the proposal wouldn't soften citizenship requirements for undocumented immigrants until tougher border controls are complete. She wanted to know how or when the government would consider the country's enormous frontiers secure.

"It seems complicated to me," Golden said. "It feels like they had to throw a big bone to the Republicans to even get this to the floor. Sometimes, these trade-offs are difficult."

The new border control measures likely would include flying drones and other surveillance technologies that would not reflect well on the United States if they become a permanent presence on the border, Palmieri said.

"It's very heavy on enforcement and border security," she said. "It's scary. It's a further militarization of immigration, which in my view is not the way to go."

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