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Leyva: Immigration reform can't come soon enough

People attend a Brentwood rally and the launch

People attend a Brentwood rally and the launch of New York's leg of the national Keeping Families Together bus tour, which will take immigrants nationwide to Washington to call for fair and real immigration reform that protects families who otherwise risk separation. (March 10, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

With a drive towards immigration reform gaining momentum across party lines, we have our first real opportunity in years to see change. The only question now is: Can we make it happen?

The so-called Gang of Eight senators certainly appear well on their way. What's more, they have public support.

In a survey released by the Pew Research Center the end of March, more than 70 percent of Americans supported a path to citizenship or permanent residency for undocumented immigrants.

We must seize this opportunity to institute real reform.

The issue of reform has long been complicated by the conflicting goals of labor unions and industry, whose conflicts over the use of immigrant labor have been longstanding.

Even Cesar Chavez, the renowned union leader and civil rights activist, stood firmly against both guest-worker programs and undocumented immigrant labor. Chavez saw the exploitation of Mexican workers in both, which in turn created unfair conditions for U.S.-born workers.

The fact remains, however, that businesses will continue to use immigrant labor, legally admitted to the country or not. Ignoring proposals for guest-worker programs, or worse, refusing to consider them, would only hinder the goal of effective immigration reform.

Fortunately, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have managed to work out at least the trappings of an agreement on a new guest-worker program. What remains to be seen is if our political leaders can do the same, especially while ensuring the guest-worker program truly provides equal treatment, decent conditions and fair pay for workers.

Many conservative pundits and politicians wish to portray the integration of 11 million undocumented immigrants as a form of amnesty for some egregious crime.

The simple truth is that immigrants, those with and without documents, come to the United States to work. They do not arrive here with expectations of living off our woefully inadequate social programs.

Contrary to the image that anti-immigration proponents would like to paint, undocumented workers contribute greatly to our society. In 2010, Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, estimated that undocumented workers were contributing as much as 10 percent of the total Social Security taxes, up to $240 billion a year, while having no way to benefit from it.

The goal of legitimizing the millions of residents around us who exist in a legal limbo is not only noble, but practical as well. We cannot rebuild our economy without the assistance of those who have often been the backbone of our construction, agriculture and manufacturing industries.

We can't allow ourselves to get stalled by evasive politicians, because right now is looking like the best bet for pushing real change past the partisan posturing.

Let's get it done right this time, so we can all benefit.

Jose Miguel Leyva is a freelance writer and journalist living in El Paso, Texas.