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Immigrants watch from around Tampa Bay as Congress debates their future

A flurry of legislation would help essential workers, farmworkers and those who arrived illegally as minors. One long shot: Comprehensive immigration reform.
Poliana Conte, 40,came to the United States from Brazil illegally and works at a hospice in Ruskin. She hopes she gain legal status through new immigration legislation that includes a measure covering essential workers.
Poliana Conte, 40,came to the United States from Brazil illegally and works at a hospice in Ruskin. She hopes she gain legal status through new immigration legislation that includes a measure covering essential workers. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]
Published Mar. 22
Updated Mar. 22

LEER EN ESPAÑOL

RUSKIN — Poliana Conte isn’t there in the U.S. Capitol as Congress debates a flurry of immigration bills.

But she knows they’re about her.

The 40-year-old mother of four has lived for two decades in the United States. She has never applied for legal residency because she knows she does not qualify. She’s hoping that will change soon. Meantime, she is grateful for the job she has, helping patients who are fatally ill.

“It’s been a very stressful year for everyone,” Conte said. “In the midst of so much unemployment, it’s a blessing to have a job.”

The House of Representatives passed two bills last week that give hope to many among the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States. One would grant legal status to those who came to the United States illegally as minors and to immigrants who fled extraordinary problems in their home countries. The other creates similar protections for farmworkers living here illegally.

A third measure still awaiting debate, the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, expedites legal residency for some 5 million undocumented immigrants deemed essential workers for their role in the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The essential workers bill was introduced Feb. 26 by Sens. Alex Padilla of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Reps. Joaquin Castro of Texas and Ted Lieu of California. All are Democrats. The bill covers workers in healthcare, agriculture, public transit, construction and other frontline industries.

“It makes lots of sense,” said the Brazilian-born Conte, who works 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day except Sunday preparing meals for more than a hundred older patients at a hospice in Ruskin. “I’m an essential worker and I work very hard for my family.”

In the year since the COVID-19 outbreak, people living in the hospice have died from the disease. A number of Conte’s co-workers have come down with it, she said.

Granting essential workers legal status can help the nation’s economic recovery while recognizing their role in the pandemic recovery, said Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, a lobbying group based in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., that focuses on immigration and criminal justice. In Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, the essential workforce includes 30,000 illegal workers — 14 percent of the total, according to FWD.us.

“If we want to build back better, we must create a pathway to citizenship for the millions of immigrants we have already deemed essential for their service during this pandemic,” Schulte said.

Immigrant Conte also holds out hope for the kind of comprehensive immigration reform that has eluded Congress for decades. There’s a new version, championed by President Joe Biden — the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021. The measure would allow people who were in the United States before Jan. 1 to apply for permanent residency, or green cards, and put them on an eight-year path to citizenship.

“If the government wants to support us with a pathway, it would be very welcome,” Conte said.

The more targeted measures that passed the House last week had some Republican support, but the sweeping Citizenship Act lacks any of the bipartisan backing enjoyed by the efforts that came up short in previous years — from lawmakers such as Florida’s Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

What’s more, as they head now to the Senate, these two House-approved measures also face an uncertain future.

“You’ve got to marry it up with some border security provisions,” Graham said last week, emphasizing a condition that Republicans are demanding in any immigration bills. If not, Graham added, giving more people legal status will “continue to incentivize the flow” of migrants.

As evidence, Republicans point to a new surge of migrants at the border with Mexico. U.S. authorities encountered migrants there more than 100,000 times in February, the first six-figure total since a four-month streak in 2019. The Biden administration is struggling to find shelter in the United States for those among them who are children traveling alone, a segment that enjoys more legal protections.

Chrinos, 54, came to the United States illegally from Honduras and had been helping support her seven siblings and their mother until she lost her job cleaning offices and painting in April.
Chrinos, 54, came to the United States illegally from Honduras and had been helping support her seven siblings and their mother until she lost her job cleaning offices and painting in April. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

The flurry of immigration legislation and the surge at the border come just six weeks into Biden’s presidency. The new president already has used executive orders to reverse certain policies of the Trump administration, which had sought to restrict immigration overall.

Comprehensive change like the Citizenship Act is long overdue but less than what many advocates had hoped for, said Olivia Golden, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for low-income people.

“While the bill corrects some errors of the past, we are disappointed to see that most individuals on the path to citizenship would be forced to wait at least a decade to access critical benefits, including health care,” Golden said.

Comprehensive reform that offers a path to citizenship promises to benefit the U.S. economy as well as those living here illegally, said Eileen Appelbaum, co-director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Appelbaum and 60 economists nationwide signed an open letter in early February arguing that the pandemic has “made plain” how closely tied public health is to the economy. They concluded that all Americans feel the pain when undocumented immigrants are prevented from fully joining the economy.

“The inverse is also true,” the letter said. “Conferring citizenship will bring expansive benefits to communities across the country, not only for the individuals directly affected, but for the larger systems — families, and the workforce — that they comprise.”

Patricia Chirinos of Tampa looks forward to the day when she may fully join in the nation’s economy. Chrinos, 54, came to the United States illegally from Honduras in 2004 and had been helping support her seven siblings and their mother until she lost her job cleaning offices and painting in April.

She has survived with the help of friends and one of her sisters and recently landed a new job in construction, enabling her to start paying off her bills.

“I dream of getting my green card and being able to go out without being afraid,” she said.

Ceberiano Gonzalez remembers the fear.

The 68-year-old Plant City farmworker has spent most of his life in the fields of Florida and North Carolina. He arrived illegally from Mexico, and two years later, in 1986, was among the 3 million immigrants granted amnesty under a bill signed by President Ronald Reagan.

Gonzalez went on to obtain permanent legal status and hopes the immigrants who came after him will have the same opportunity.

Mexican-born Ceberiano Gonzalez, 68, gained legal status following the amnesty act approved by Congress and signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
Mexican-born Ceberiano Gonzalez, 68, gained legal status following the amnesty act approved by Congress and signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

“My people want a chance,” Gonzalez said, speaking in Spanish.

COVID-19 has taken its toll on farmworkers like Gonzalez, sickening some 541,000 of them across the United States, according to a study by Microsoft and Purdue University. About half of all farmworkers are here illegally, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but growers put the number at far more than that.

“We are not asking a favor,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a right that has been earned through hard work.”

Information from the Associated Press was included in this story.