Jacqueline Wattles photo
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (Jacqueline Wattles photo)

Following the Senate’s passage of comprehensive immigration reform legislation, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy held a roundtable discussion in Willimantic on Monday to encourage citizens to “use networks” to put pressure on the U.S. House to do the same.

“This wasn’t the genius of a handful of United States senators, this was a movement that has been happening in this country rooted in communities like Willimantic that finally spurred the Senate to action,” Murphy said.

The bill passed the Senate by a 68-32 bipartisan vote. But the bill’s next hurdle will be passage by the Republican-controlled House where many representatives have traditionally opposed pathways to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S.

The Senate’s legislation would open up such a pathway. The bill would give illegal immigrants the opportunity to apply for a “temporary legal status” that lasts for a 10-year “interim” period and then begin the three-year application process for full citizenship after paying a $500 fine. The process is expedited for students and family members of citizens.

Additionally, the bill stipulates that during the 10-year interim period, 700 miles of fencing must be added to the U.S.’s southern border and the number of Border Patrol agents must be doubled, and the bill allocated more than $40 billion to get it done.

“We want to make sure we secure our borders from here on out,” Murphy said, though he believes the spending is “overkill.”

The beefed-up border patrol proposal was an attempt to win Republican support for the bill.

But only 38 of the House’s 234 Republican districts have Latino populations that top 20 percent, according to the Wall Street Journal, which divorces the issue from many representatives’ political agendas.

“I have no interest in turning this country into a fortress . . . it essentially militarizes our border.” Murphy said. “That money would be better spent somewhere else.”

The legislation also would begin a new guest worker program to allow foreigners to obtain temporary work visas, and establishes an “E-verify” system that streamlines employers’ ability to determine workers’ immigration status.

“It’s by no means perfect,” Murphy said. “But [it] represents the first major step forward on immigration reform that this country has taken in 20 years, and it was done with Republicans and Democrats standing together. It would have been unthinkable just two years ago.”

Murphy told the more than 30 residents at Monday’s meeting that he wants the House to act quickly on the legislation in order to give undocumented immigrants an answer. He said the House members may vote on the Senate’s bill, but some members have also discussed drafting their own.

Murphy said he fears that Republicans in the House will punt on the “heart” of the issue: a pathway to citizenship.

“I hope that the House understands that an immigration bill without a pathway to citizenship is not an immigration bill,” he said. “A bill with just border security, a guest worker program, and E-verify is not a serious attempt at resolving the problem we have in this country.”

With Democrats, who have traditionally backed citizenship pathways for undocumented workers, largely outnumbered in the House, Murphy called upon citizens to reach across state borders to keep the movement going.

“You’re largely going to be preaching to the choir when you’re talking to Connecticut’s five House members,” Murphy said. “But your networks across the country are going to be indispensable in trying to convince other Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives” to take up the immigration issue.

Amid a chorus of voices supporting Murphy and the Senate’s passage of the immigration bill, one Willimantic resident echoed concerns about the bill expressed by the bill’s opponents in Congress.

“I welcome all kinds of people into this country, but if somebody’s broken the law to come in here, I have a problem personally with rewarding them with citizenship,” he said. “The main thing I want to get across is the need to open up the legal immigration process to help reduce this problem.”

Murphy said he agreed, but said the enforcement provisions in the bill are a “dramatic uptick” in curtailing illegal immigration. He added that allowing the 11 million undocumented workers already in the U.S. to “come out of the shadows” will have a significant positive impact on the economy.

The Congressional Budget Office released a report indicating the reforms could reduce the federal deficit by $900 billion over the next 20 years.

The White House Blog said the “CBO analysis made clear that the additional taxes paid by new and legalizing immigrants would not only offset any new spending, but would be substantial enough to reduce the deficit . . .”

The CBO also predicted the guest worker program outlined in the bill would add 1.6 million temporary workers to the economy.

Murphy said immigrant workers will be a keystone in keeping the U.S. economy competitive internationally.

“The US will remain relatively young compared to the rest of the world because we are able to bring in generations of new immigrants from all around the world in order to continually feed our workforce,” he said.

Bill Powers, a Windham High School teacher, said he favored the legislation, but was concerned about the ability of the education system to adapt to the changes it would bring.

“We don’t have the resources we need for people who speak other languages in my own community . . . the answer I get back is that we don’t have the resources,” Powers said.

Murphy agreed, but said the interim period would give the social service and education systems a chance to adjust to the changes the law will bring and the estimated 10.4 million new residents.

“We’re still going to have a lot of problems to solve during that interim time,” Murphy said. “But it will be much easier to solve them when people feel like they can actually present themselves with the problems that they have or their children have.”

Earlier this year in Connecticut, the immigrant community celebrated passage of two bills. One would prohibit, under some circumstances, any law enforcement officer in the state from telling U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that they detained an undocumented immigrant. The second will give undocumented Connecticut residents the ability to apply for a drivers’ license starting in January 2015.