Maria Cabrera, left, and her son Jose. / Tony Jones, The Cincinnati Enquirer
CINCINNATI - For the first time in 14 years, Maria Cabrera can almost touch her hopes.
In the past two days, a bipartisan group of senators, followed by President Barack Obama, laid out their basic points for comprehensive reform of U.S. immigration policy that, in spite of some differences, would both allow a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants - like Cabrera and her son, Jose, 17 - living illegally in the United States.
"I have a lot of faith in God that there will be a solution to all of our problems," said Cabrera, 46, who supports her family by cleaning houses.
Obama, elected to a second term in part by capturing more than 70% of the Hispanic vote, spoke Tuesday in Las Vegas.
"We are finally at a point when comprehensive immigration reform is in our grasp," he said a day after eight key senators, four Republicans and four Democrats, announced a similar framework to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.
Details need to be expanded in both plans, and the major potential sticking point looks to be the pathway to earned citizenship for illegal immigrants. Obtaining citizenship would be a longer, more arduous process under the framework senators laid out Monday. Their plan would provide probationary legal status for illegal immigrants and begin the naturalization process only when convinced the U.S.-Mexico border is secure.
Both Obama's and the Senate plans appear consistent in other areas: Tighten border security, establish a national employment verification system and provide naturalization for top foreign science and technology students who graduate from U.S. colleges
Jose Cabrera wants to study engineering at the University of Illinois. A junior at Purcell Marian High School in Cincinnati, he already has applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that the administration created in June with an Obama executive order. More than 103,000 young immigrants brought to the United States as children - Jose was 4 - have been granted two-year work permits.
Jose's parents later had two daughters, Esther, 12, born in North Carolina, and Karina, 10, born in Cincinnati, before they separated. The girls attend a Catholic elementary school.
"I want my children to get good grades and do well for themselves and the community," Maria Cabrera said in Spanish. Her son translated.
Of his mother, Jose Cabrera said, "She is a great example to never stop fighting."
Obama: Immigrants boost economy
The president said Tuesday that changing immigration laws will help the U.S. economy, a point contested by some organizations, namely the Center for Immigration Studies. That Washington-based group says lower-skilled U.S. workers face increased competition from immigrant workers.
Another group, Lexington, Ky.-based America for Lawful Immigration Solutions Today, said in a release Tuesday that the full cost to U.S. taxpayers from 1986's Immigration Reform and Control Act has not been calculated and that a congressional accounting must be done before any changes are made to current law.
The food processing, home construction, meat-packing and service industries are what draw immigrants to Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky. An estimated 50,000 undocumented workers, including Senegalese and other French-speaking Africans, live in the Cincinnati metro area, say immigrant and Hispanic advocates.
Unauthorized workers make up about 1.1% of Ohio's workforce, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
"For a regional economy, the entrepreneurial spirit of immigrants is like having the wind at your back when you're running," said Alfonso Cornejo, president of the Cincinnati USA Hispanic Chamber.
In 2007, according to the chamber's 2011 annual Hispanic business report, 1,600 Hispanic-owned businesses in the Cincinnati metro area paid a collective $80 million in wages to 2,800 employees and created $440 million in revenue.
Nationally, pro-business groups praised the senators' and president's announcements.
"It's time to move from politics to policy," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co chair of the Partnership for a New American Economy, said in a statement.
'It would be nice not to have to hide'
Another component of the senators' proposal is to track better immigrants who are here on employment or tourist visas. Often, they overstay and become illegal or return even if their work visas are not renewed.
That's the case with Jose, 35, and Antonio Cazarez, 27, brothers who live in Florence, Ky., with their wives and children and work in Kentucky's horse industry. Jose Cazarez, who has two U.S.-born sons, ages 8 and 4 months, had five times been granted work permits. His sixth application was denied, so he crossed illegally from Mexico to rejoin his family; his wife is here illegally.
"I can see hope," Jose Cazarez said of the plans introduced this week. "It would be nice not to have to hide."
Antonio Cazarez, whose third visa application was denied, returned to join his wife, who is living in the United States illegally, and their three daughters, two of whom are U.S. citizens.
"I think I will be able to qualify to stay here with my family," he said. "We do not want to separate any more."
Family unification is a major concern of many religious organizations in this area - the American Jewish Committee, Archdiocese of Cincinnati and the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati - that have called for change and applaud this week's announcements.
Meanwhile, Maria Cabrera and her children go about their daily lives.
"I teach my kids to love this country like I love it," she said. "This country has given us food and a roof, work and education."
She does not focus on what has been lost. She has not seen her parents, now 84 and 82, in 14 years, nor eight of her siblings who stayed in Veracruz, Mexico. She wants to give back. She sings in the choir and leads a women's group at San Carolos Borromeo Catholic Church here.
"I give what I can. Latinos say, 'I have a little grain of rice,' " she said. "That is our life. A little grain of rice."
Granito de arroz.
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