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Changing the Conversation on Immigration Reform

Comprehensive immigration reform is in our national interest and making it possible starts with changing the conversation by sharing stories. Secretary Hilda L. Solis shares her experience from a roundtable in LA.

A few weeks ago, I went back home to Los Angeles to host a conversation on immigration reform. More than 300 people packed the auditorium at East Los Angeles College (ELAC).

The immigration issue in communities like this one is about a lot more than numbers. For families in this neighborhood, it represents a daily struggle guided by great uncertainty, anxiety, and fear.

I was raised by immigrant parents in a town about fifteen minutes from ELAC, so I’m familiar with this story. Not surprisingly, many in the audience were, too.  I heard about families being separated because of our broken immigration laws; about fearful workers who had been treated terribly; and about brilliant students, with big dreams who can’t make them come true. It broke my heart. It made me think about my story – about the people who raised me and how much they’ve meant to my life. 

Storytelling is one way to learn about the immigration issue, one way to connect with it, and with each other. Stories help link our commonality – our common struggles, goals and victories.  Stories bring us closer as people. But they also provide a unique framework from which to better make the case for building a 21st century immigration reform.

So I’m happy that panelists and audience-members alike were able to share them.

But we can’t just preach to the choir. We need to make sure that everyone – especially those who disagree – know about the many ways immigrants contribute to the wealth and prosperity of our nation.

They create jobs as small business owners and entrepreneurs and file three times the number of patents. And research shows that immigrants are 30% more likely to form new businesses than U.S. born citizens. Immigrants build our roads and harvest crops. And yes, immigrants are driven, smart and some the best students we have this country.

We need to spotlight this side of the immigration debate, too. And we need to make sure that people know about the progress we’ve made under President Obama’s leadership.  

At the Labor Department we’ve signed several agreements with foreign consulates to provide added safeguards to vulnerable workers.  Through new revisions to our H2A farm worker program, we’ve provided increased protections for foreign workers who come here to harvest seasonally. And DOL has begun the process of certifying U Visas for victims of crimes like trafficking and involuntary servitude through cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). 

Additionally, the Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently issued policy guidance about the proper treatment of immigrants in a number of sensitive situations. It directed agents to pay particular attention to safeguarding the rights of victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, and other serious crimes.

We need to do more. We have to take hold of the way people talk about this issue and about all immigrants. We have to prove to all Americans that comprehensive reform is in our national interest. It starts with changing the conversation – with telling stories. President Obama gets that, and events like the one we hosted in Los Angeles are an important part of the process.

Hilda L. Solis is Secretary of Labor.