Cantor is gone, but rural America still needs immigration reform

I’m the mayor of Wilder, Idaho, a rural community of 1,533 people surrounded by some of the best farmland on the face of the earth. I’ve called this town home for more than 40 years.

I’ll be in Washington, D.C. Tuesday (June 17) to stand alongside other elected officials and small business owners from across rural America. Together we will urge the U.S. House of Representatives to stop hedging and take action on immigration reform.

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Hedging on immigration reform is bad policy for rural America. It’s also bad politics. (House Majority Leader Eric Cantor just found that out the hard way.) We are at a crossroads on immigration: for the future of towns like mine across rural America, the time for action on immigration reform is now.

A century ago, my corner of Idaho was brought to life when the New York Canal was built, carrying water to irrigate our soil. Families from Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma flowed here as well, to start farms and businesses and build a future.

My parents were migrant workers (to be clear, I’m a white guy, and white folks can be migrant workers, too). I went to 13 different schools one year. We picked apples in Washington, olives and oranges in California, cotton in Texas, potatoes, peas and onions in Idaho. After many years we finally settled in Idaho.

Migrant workers from Mexico with seasonal permits also followed the harvest, making their way to the agricultural lands surrounding Wilder.

Eventually, machinery took over most of the backbreaking fieldwork, but many of the migrant families stayed in Wilder. People found other jobs or started their own businesses. These days, Wilder’s Latino families are in all kinds of occupations – doctors, nurses, lawyers, restaurant owners, teachers – and are elected to the city council.

Our little city is more than 70 percent Latino; our schools are 80 percent. Over the past 10 years we’ve had nine Gates Millennium Scholarship winners in our high school graduating class – all Latino. Any city would be proud of that.

Our city’s slogan is “Welcome to Wilder, Come Grow with Us.” When I signed a resolution declaring Wilder a welcoming city a few years ago, I got quite a bit of flack. People thought I was supporting undocumented immigration. I simply believe all people should be treated with respect.

Immigration wasn’t really a big concern of mine until a few years ago. My son was in the Navy and stationed overseas. When he got out of the Navy he married a woman who is a citizen of the Philippines – where they lived. They have a child, my granddaughter.

My son moved back to the U.S. with the hope of getting his family here. He’s spent seven years filing forms, he’s paid thousands of dollars in fees, he’s hired three lawyers – and his family still isn’t here. Paperwork has been lost; they ran out of money to pay lawyers.

Seeing this in my own family has given me a new perspective on the challenges immigrants face in coming here and the importance of reuniting families.

There is no reason in the world that it should be this difficult to get to the United States, stay here and make a living. The bureaucracy around immigration has exploded and nothing has been done about the broken laws that are hurting people’s lives.

If you live in the United States legally, and you want to bring your mother from Mexico to live with you, the average wait is 12 years.  If you want to come here from the Philippines, the time on the waiting list is closer to 20 years. 

Immigration reform is personal to me: a white guy, the mayor of a small rural town in the heart of red-state Idaho. I’m probably the last guy you’d expect to see pushing for immigration reform.

But the fact is, rural towns across America need immigration reform the most. Past generations of immigrants built rural America; new generations are revitalizing it.

I represent hundreds of rural America mayors and business owners in small towns who know first-hand the contributions immigrants make, and know we need reform now to build a stronger, brighter future for rural America. And that’s why I’m heading to Washington, DC to add my voice to the call for immigration reform. The time for action is now.

Bechtel is the mayor of Wilder, Idaho.

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