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INDYSTAR - As Obama Urges Putting Immigration Reform on Fast Track, Each Side Tries to Make its Case

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By Clara Ritger

Bebe Martinez is a dreamer.

She dreams of going to college and becoming a doctor.

"I have the brains, the grades, everything," she said, "except that nine-digit number."

Without a Social Security number, Martinez is ineligible for in-state tuition, following a 2011 vote in the Indiana legislature to require anyone unlawfully in the United States to pay the out-of-state rate. She also is ineligible for most scholarships, despite being ranked No. 2 in her class at Indianapolis Lighthouse Academy.

"I've worked so hard," Martinez said, "but at the end of the day it's as if I don't even exist."

To achieve her American Dream she needs one thing: citizenship.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate voted to hear a bill that would put undocumented immigrants such as Martinez on a pathway to citizenship. The 82-15 vote opens debate on a bill drafted by a bipartisan group of senators called the "Gang of Eight."

Among the legislation's requirements is heightened border security before opening a 13-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, who would be granted legal status but not eligibility for health care, welfare and entitlement programs. The bill also would require businesses to use E-Verify, an online system that checks employment eligibility in federal records.

Both Indiana senators -- Democrat Joe Donnelly and Republican Dan Coats -- voted in favor of opening the bill for debate.

"I will be carefully studying the many amendments that will be offered," Donnelly said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Coats said he does not support the legislation in its current form and wants to see improvements to the border security, employer verification and visa sections of the bill.

"I believe we must repair our broken immigration system for economic and national security reasons, and I welcome a debate on this important issue," Coats said a statement.

Earlier Tuesday, President Barack Obama prioritized immigration reform, pushing Congress to send him a bill by the fall.

But Martinez said she can't wait.

"If I started the process today," she said, "I'll be 30 once I get my citizenship."

The bill in its current form grants immigrants legal status while completing the process, which would qualify Martinez for in-state tuition and financial aid.

The legislation would affect more than 3,000 young Hoosiers and more than 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally. Eighty-one percent of those 11 million were born in Latin America, according to the Pew Research Hispanic Center.

Those numbers are rapidly growing, Pew data suggests, with the Latino population expected to double by 2050.

Some activist groups in Indiana aren't pleased by those numbers.

"Their parents made a mistake and their parents should be the ones to fix it," said Cheree Calabro, co-founder of the Indiana Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement. "I don't think the taxpayers of Indiana or the taxpayers of the United States should be responsible for their mistakes."

Last month, IFIRE delivered 7,000 Hoosier signatures to the offices of Donnelly and Coats to show their opposition to the immigration bill.

"The bill is so bad it's unfixable," Calabro said. "It will increase legal and illegal immigration which will devastate the American workers, our own minorities, who are competing with the foreign workers for jobs."

IFIRE hasn't received the public support of Donnelly and Coats -- but neither have groups in favor of the legislation.

The Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCAN), a grassroots organization advocating for low- and moderate-income people in Marion County, has met with aides from Donnelly's office in Indianapolis -- and on one occasion, the senator -- to present their arguments for the bill.

"On Mother's Day, we walked over with the slogan "Please don't deport my mom,' " said Jesus Ramirez, 16, a member of the steering committee for IndyCAN and its parent organization, PICO National Network.

Ramirez, like Martinez, does not have his U.S. citizenship. Though he supports the bill, he worries that the proposed application fees for citizenship are prohibitively expensive for families.

"For a family of five, at $4,000 per person, that's $20,000," Ramirez said.

Ramirez's mom works at Taco Bell and his dad works in construction. But in Mexico his mother was a registered nurse and his father was a businessman.

Martinez's family struggles with the same obstacles. Her mom, Elena Rodriguez, 36, is pregnant, but usually works as a housekeeper.

Keeping families together and making citizenship affordable are two aspects of the bill that Chris Wadelton, associate pastor at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, hopes to see improved.

"It's a matter of our faith that we care for the less fortunate," he said.

IndyCAN also has reached out to the state's representatives, but statements from the officials about their positions on the bill are no more definitive than those offered by Donnelly and Coats.

U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Indianapolis) and spokespersons for U.S. Reps. Susan Brooks (R-Carmel) and Luke Messer (R-Shelbyville) said they are focused primarily on border security. All three placed importance on ensuring that those who came to the country illegally were not benefiting more than those who came legally.

Rokita also said he wants to retain those who have been educated here.

"For too long we have spent our tax dollars to educate young people at schools like Purdue, and then forced them to return to their home countries," Rokita said in a statement. "I would rather we welcome young engineers and other talented young people to the United States."

Martinez said U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, D-Indianapolis, has been "very supportive and open-minded" with IndyCAN's initiatives.

"Reform is a necessary step toward strengthening our economy and honoring the creed on which this nation was founded," Carson said in a statement released last month.


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