Many Americans' idea of immigration reform is to stop those from other countries from coming to America. Yet reform could also help protect those who suffer at the hands of some who would exploit them.
While many of the people who come to America are looking for a better way of life, that's not always what they get. Many immigrants, legal or not, often face great difficulties.
Sylvia Stelly of Lake Charles had a successful nursing career for 25 years, but then felt called to found La Familia Resource Center. Her ability to speak fluent Spanish made her of great help to immigrants in Southwest Louisiana. But her inspiration comes from her father who came to New York from Puerto Rico in 1950. "He basically came to New York at the age of 25 with my mom to offer his family a better lifestyle, a better way of living. It's not to say Puerto Rico was a bad place. It just was economically not thriving, not getting anywhere and he wanted something better for his children."
The 2010 Census counted close to 5000 Hispanic people in Calcasieu Parish but those who work with immigrants suspect many here did not fill out census forms.
Economist Mike Kurth says immigration reform should document immigrants. "I think there's something like 23 million undocumented workers here. We don't know who they are, where they are, what they're doing. If we had a legal process we could keep track of them."
While many Americans seek reforms aimed at keeping unauthorized immigrants out, reform might also help prevent exploitation of some. Says Kurth, "The immigrants themselves who come here and who do not have legal status can be horribly exploited in the United States, very vulnerable and can be horribly exploited, so it's bad for them."
Beth Zilbert, attorney for the People's Advocate, agrees. "For a Hispanic who's a victim of crime or violence it's even more terrifying. Because the person abusing you knows that you're afraid to go to the authorities. They can hold your immigration status over your head to keep you from seeking help as well. So there are these extra barriers to overcoming and getting out of an abusive situation."
Shannon Cox worked to help immigrants with legal issues until she was killed in a car accident a year ago this month. She co-founded the People's Advocate with Zilbert who finds inspiration through Shannon to carry on her work. Says Zilbert, "Most who are here are here not because they want to cause trouble or because they're bad. They're here because as human beings we want something better for ourselves and our children. And they're willing to work for it."
While being an immigrant in America is more complicated than it was 80 years ago, Kurth says some things haven't changed. "We need immigration reform. The alternative is to try to build a wall around America. When I was in the Army I was stationed over in Berlin and I saw that wall and I saw people get shot trying to climb over it to get to freedom and I don't care which side of the wall you're on, trying to keep 'em in or trying to keep 'em out I don't like walls separating people from economic opportunity."
While reform has long been talked about in Washington and Baton Rouge, there's no real sign of change so far. For now, people like Stelly continue their work as advocates for immigrants who seek something better. Says Sylvia, "Many families come here and they live in small houses with ten and nine people. They're just trying to get a better life, live the American dream just like everyone else that came from Ireland, from Italy and back many years ago."
Debate over immigration reform will no doubt rage on for years. And there's much more to the story. To hear more of our interviews with Mike Kurth and Sylvia Stelly look for links on this page. Stelly talks more about services offered by La Familia Resource Center and her views on reform.