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Immigration Event Brings Attention to Issue Overshadowed by Shutdown

A weekend event in Pittsfield, Massachusetts will bring attention to the area’s immigrants, an issue that went quiet on the national stage amid the government shutdown.

Saturday’s celebration marks the 9th “Immigrants Day in the Berkshires” after a lack of funding tabled the event last year. Brooke Mead is the Program Coordinator at the Berkshire Immigrant Center, which serves more than 800 people each year. She says about $50,000, or a third of the group’s total funding from the federal government’s Community Development Block Grant Program, was cut for fiscal year 2012.

“There’s a hope that if there’s comprehensive immigration reform there would be some more money available,” Mead said. “There’s really almost no money available for assistance to immigrants from the federal government. Even state, we do get some funding to help people become U.S. Citizens, but there’s not a very big pot.” 

Mead says documenting the nearly 20 million illegal immigrants living in the United States would create economic growth by having them pay into federal programs instead of working under the table. Massachusetts U.S. Congressman Jim McGovernagrees with Mead that the recently ended federal government shutdown delayed the possibility of immigration reform. The Democrat from the Commonwealth’s 2nd District spoke on WAMC’s Congressional Corner.

“It has become a polarizing issue in this House of Representatives,” McGovern said. “It shouldn’t be. We need to get beyond that. If the Speaker of the House would schedule the bill that Republicans and Democrats in the Senate passed on the House floor it would pass. We could then solve that issue and move on to something else. But, Speaker Boehner is reluctant to do that. He doesn’t want to offend the Tea Party wing of his party.”

Some states are addressing immigration on their own, specifically when it comes to illegal immigrants obtaining drivers licenses. Ten states, including seven this year, like Connecticut and Vermont, have passed laws allowing undocumented people to legally obtain a license. State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Democrat from Pittsfield, has filed what she calls the Safe Driving Bill, under which people would be trained, tested and insured while having to pay the same fees U.S. citizens do.

“We have basically set up policy to say that people that don’t have documentation do not need to pay those fees,” Farley-Bouvier said. “So all of us are paying more.”

Farley-Bouvier says a lack of public transportation in the Berkshires forces those living in the area illegally to get behind the wheel of car to get to work, school or the store without having a license. She doesn’t believe handing out licenses would lead to increased deportations by the federal government and adds it would not qualify people to receive any other government assistance.

“People in law enforcement often want to know who the person is that they are dealing with,” she said. “When they can have confidence that the form of identification being used is valid and consistent, it helps a great deal.”

Farley-Bouvier says this wouldn’t even be an issue if Washington had already addressed it.

“This would be solved if there was comprehensive federal immigration reform and there hasn’t been,” the Democrat said. “I think what everybody agrees on here is that we can’t count of the federal government to do the right thing at this time. We can’t wait for the federal government to make our roads safer.”

The proposed legislation will be heard in committee in the coming weeks.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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