What Latinos Want From Immigration Reform

President Obama recently announced that he would be turning his attention to immigration reform. But what's a realistic expectation, and what are immigrant communities really hoping for? Host Michel Martin talks with Fernando Espuelas of Univision, and Eduardo De Souza, a soccer coach at Longwood University.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We are going to spend some time today talking about some of the biggest issues for what is now the biggest minority group in the country, Latinos. In a moment, we'll talk about marketing to Latinos from one of this country's veteran marketing executives. We'll ask what works and what misses the mark. Her answers might surprise you.

But first, we want to talk about politics and specifically, immigration reform, which is often viewed as a top priority of Latino voters. It's also been on the mind of President Obama, who said late last week that he was ready to make it a priority.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We should finish the job of fixing our broken immigration system. There's already a broad coalition across America that's behind this effort of comprehensive immigration reform, from business leaders to faith leaders to law enforcement.

MARTIN: And just today, House Speaker John Boehner said that he is, quote-unquote, hopeful about bringing up immigration reform in the House this year. We wanted to talk more about this, if there really is the political and popular well to address this country's immigration laws. So we've called upon somebody who's been following the issue closely. Fernando Espuelas is the managing editor and host of "The Fernando Espuelas Show," which is broadcast on Univision America. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

FERNANDO ESPUELAS: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And for additional perspective, we also called Eduardo de Souza. He's the associate head soccer coach at Longwood University in Virginia. He's been living in the U.S. since 1999 on a series of visas, and we thought it would be helpful for him to tell us more about his experiences in trying to navigate the system as it is now. Eduardo, thank you so much for joining us once again.

DE SOUZA: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Fernando, I'm going to start with you because you've been reporting on this. This isn't the first time the president has said that he wants to bring immigration reform to the table, and now the speaker has said the same thing, or he said that he's hopeful. Could it be that the stars are aligned that this will now happen?

ESPUELAS: Well, I think ultimately there is national consensus. Gallup published a poll about a month ago or so which showed over 70 percent of Americans want immigration reform with a path toward citizenship. But at the same time, there is a group within the Republican Party - maybe the Tea Party would be the right name for it - that is adamantly against it and has pledged to oppose it. So since we've learned with the shutdown that perhaps Speaker Boehner is not totally in charge of his caucus, he might want to bring it up, but that may not mean that they will bring it up.

MARTIN: Well, to your point, we had a conversation earlier this week with Rep. Reid Ribble. He's a Republican from Wisconsin. He considers himself a conservative, but he's also a member of the No Labels group, which is trying to work toward bipartisan solutions to big political issues. And we asked him about whether immigration reform is going to get through the House anytime soon, if it's even going to be taken up. And this is what he had to say.

REP. REID RIBBLE: I think the rest of this fall, the remainder of the fall is going to be centered around issues of the budget and how the conference committee is doing. Maybe there'll be some other lighter legislative initiatives that take place, but I'm a little bit skeptical. And then, if immigration reform is not done by the end of this year, it is highly unlikely that it would be done next year because it's an election year.

MARTIN: Basically, reinforcing your point. But Fernando...

ESPUELAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...A lot of people might be puzzled by why it is that something that seems to be in the political interest of both parties and is in the - you've got, you know, high-profile business leaders, high-profile faith leaders all say this is something that the country needs to address, why it is that this might not happen. Can you shed some light on that?

ESPUELAS: Well, I have my theories. I think that there is a group of people in the Congress that represent a minority of Americans, based on the polling, that adamantly are against any kind of immigration reform, perhaps are somewhat threatened - emotionally threatened by the demographic changes in the country. And they see blocking immigration reform as a way of stopping history at a certain level. I know that sounds like too easy an answer, but at the same time, I actually have attended some of these Tea Party rallies and heard some of these congresspeople speak. And they really do speak in rather harsh terms about immigrants and about what's happened in this country without recognizing that this is a process. This is a system that has broken down, and we have to fix the system, not for the immigrants, but really for the country.

MARTIN: So Eduardo, let's turn to you because so often the focus is on people who are in the country without documentation. You have documentation. I mean, you've been on the program before, and you've talked about the fact you've been here. You went to school here. You went to graduate school here, and you still have difficulty figuring out how to normalize your situation. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

DE SOUZA: Yes, it's mixing feelings, you know, frustration, stress, anxiety from my family, myself because I think the government - the Democrats and Republicans - they still do not have anything set up, planned, for people that, you know, came to the United States in the legal path. So we talk a lot about illegal immigrants, and we have the rights to talk about them, and they have their own stories. But I don't see much, you know, people address this issue because, you know, think about it. I came by invitation to the United States. I play sports here. I was a scholarship athlete here. Then, you know, passing 12 years, I'm still jumping from visa to visa to visa.

Today, I hold a H-1B visa, which is a work visa, that will expire in 2015. My wife is from Brazil as well. She filed the same path as I. She has her own H-1B visa. We have a daughter now here in the United States. She is an American citizen. And we still don't have anything that's going to, you know, back us up. We put a lot of effort to be here, you know. We expend a lot of money. We're investing everything. We're investing in time for life here, getting degrees and trying to do the right thing. So we feel very injustice.

MARTIN: Well, why do you say that there is no path for you, though? You have an H-1B visa. Just to recap. You came here, as you said, by invitation. You were recruited to play soccer. You went to undergraduate and graduate school here. So you had a series of student visas. Now you have an H-1B visa, recognizing your particular expertise. Why is that not a path to citizenship for you?

DE SOUZA: Because after you stay here for so long, you know, and if you're still in a work visa, working visa has limitations. So mine will expire in 2015. If I don't get a green card and do that, I need to leave the country or I'm going to become illegal immigrant.

So something that I don't want to be in that path, you know, since I'm putting a lot of effort for all those years. I don't know why I don't have a path. So I don't know why the government doesn't clarify for people they have doing the right thing here, paying tax, doing everything correct like a regular American citizen. But we still don't have - we don't have any idea how can we get it, how can we become a citizen, how we can get a green card. You know, of course, there is certain situations that you're going to go through and apply for other fees and everything else...

MARTIN: OK...

ESPUELAS: ...But it's still not clear.

MARTIN: Let me let Fernando get in on this.

ESPUELAS: Well, I think Eduardo is a wonderful example of why the system is completely broken down. We have a reality in this country, which is that we need more immigrants in order for the economy to continue to grow. If magically today, you stopped all immigration into this country - documented, undocumented, whatever - our population would decline in the same way that the Japanese population is declining, the German population is declining. Our economy would come down. This is a fact. It's a demographic fact. What we don't have is a cogent system that we can actually apply in order to meet our needs as a country. And this is really a dynamic which has no party, has no ideology. It's just a need for the country.

MARTIN: Well, there is a dispute about that, Fernando, which I'm sure you know is the case. I mean, there is a matter of dispute about that, I mean, about the effect on wage rates and so forth. The other thing - but just setting that aside for now, just setting that sort of argument aside for now and just focusing on the political argument, it is said that one of the reasons that there is not more progress on this is that this is really not the top priority of Latino voters. People say that other issues come first.

ESPUELAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Could you just address that?

ESPUELAS: Yeah. I mean, I think this is the fallacy of polling, which is that if you ask any human being what is the most important thing that they're thinking about, obviously they're going to think about their first needs - jobs, housing, health. And so that's what comes across in polling. But very quickly thereafter, you're going to hit those issues which are emotional markers. And for, I think, Latinos in general, but immigrants in particular - or the other way around - basically, immigration is a proxy for how we are being seen in this society.

I'm an American citizen. I would not benefit from immigration reform, but I'm passionately in favor of it, not just because of the impact to the economy and the country in general, but because I do think that it's a respect issue. Why is Eduardo being treated - even though he's done everything correctly - why are we not taking advantage of the human capital that he represents to this country, and do it in a rational way so that he can be completely calm and relaxed and investing in the country, investing his energy? Why not?

MARTIN: Eduardo, can I ask - briefly as you can - when you think about the situation that you are in, the limbo that you are in, which is better than other peoples' in the sense that you do have, you know, you do have an H1-B visa. You do have a job. You're respected in your field. Who do you blame for this situation? Do you have a sense of - when you think about it, who do you think is at fault? Or do you even think of it that way?

DE SOUZA: No, I don't think in blaming somebody. I just think it like Fernando was expressing it. We have to address this issue because - I give one example. I'm an educator, you know. I coach soccer here, and I educate young Americans and people from other countries here, too. You know, every time I speak with them, I tell words like dream, work hard and you're going to succeed. If you do the right thing, you're going to get a reward in the end.

And, you know, I feel very - sometimes, you know, I am telling the right thing because a lot of people - it's not just myself - a lot of people are in my situation, that you follow the American dream. You do the correct things, and in the end, maybe it doesn't work for you, and why, you know. So I don't think blame should be the word I should use. But I think - I think at least, you know, the president is trying to address the immigration reform. That's a positive thing.

MARTIN: Let me just briefly ask Fernando about that 'cause we only have about a minute left. Fernando, many people, including Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who's been a guest on your program, as well - a congressman from Chicago, who is Puerto Rican, by the way, is not an immigrant - says that the president has not done as much as he could do on this point, even though he's talked a good game, but has not delivered, and your thoughts about that.

ESPUELAS: I disagree with that only because I'm a pragmatist, and, at the end of the day, Congress has to pass laws in order for the president to sign it. And he can give as many speeches as he wants. At the end of the day, if the House of Representatives does not take up the Senate immigration bill, modify it, do whatever they want with it, but take it up and have a vote, there is no bill to sign. And no amount of speechifying on the part of the president will really change that dynamic. So, at the end of the day, Boehner has to open up the floor of the House to an open vote. There will be an almost unanimous Democratic support for it and probably about 30 percent of Republicans will support it, as well. It will pass. The president will sign it. We'll be done with this issue. Eduardo will have a path toward citizenship, and our country will be better for it.

MARTIN: Fernando Espuelas is managing editor and host of "The Fernando Espuelas Show," which is broadcast on Univision America. He joined us from our studios in Washington, D.C. Eduardo de Souza is an assistant soccer coach at Longwood University. We caught up with him at his offices there. Thank you both so much for joining us, gentlemen.

ESPUELAS: Thanks, Michel.

DE SOUZA: Thank you.

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