Immigration-reform advocates want clear path to citizenship

astice@islandpacket.comFebruary 9, 2013 

Mario Martinez sits Friday in his Hilton Head Island office. Next month, Martinez will travel to Washington as the South Carolina representative for Latino Advocacy Days, sponsored by the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic advocacy group in the United States.


Hilton Head Island business owner Mario Martinez wants undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status so they can “come out of the shadows.” A work visa or citizenship would give them the same opportunity he has enjoyed — a chance to be legally employed and pay taxes without fear of deportation.

Martinez said that desire fuels his trip in March to Washington, where he will urge lawmakers to pass an immigration reform bill.

Martinez, who runs Innova Small Business Consulting, will be the South Carolina representative during the National Council of La Raza’s Latino Advocacy Days. Billed as the nation’s largest Hispanic civil-rights and advocacy organization, the group will lobby March 6 and 7 on Capitol Hill. They will encounter a Congress that again is taking up the contentious immigration issue.

As a group of senators, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tries to cobble together bipartisan legislation, the House Judiciary Committee began hearings Tuesday that demonstrated how difficult passing reform legislation would be. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the committee that would take up any reform bill passed by the Senate, called a path to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants “extreme” as he questioned San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.

The legislation being developed in the Senate is expected to immediately grant provisional legal status to many of the illegal immigrants now in the country, but they couldn’t get green cards until the border has been secured. They also would have to meet criteria including learning English and paying fines. Illegal immigrants might face about a 10-year wait to become legal permanent U.S. residents, negotiators said Thursday. That’s shorter than some current wait times but longer than some advocates might like.

The emerging legislation is expected to require illegal immigrants to petition for citizenship behind those already attempting the process. Meanwhile, another Hilton Head businessman who also aspires to Capitol Hill — he’s seeking the Republican nomination for the vacant 1st Congressional District seat — said he strongly supports increased border security but opposes “any kind of amnesty.”

State Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head, has been talking about the reform bill with constituents during his run for Congress. Patrick said undocumented immigrants should be identified through workplace measures designed to weed out illegal employees, and they should “go to the end of the line” to get visas or green cards.

On that point, he and Martinez might find common ground.

Martinez said he also advocates a process that is fair to others who already have been seeking a legal path to citizenship and that he supports a penalty for those who didn’t follow the rules.

Immigration lawyer Craig Dobson agreed.

There is “no question that immigrants would gladly go through a difficult process with filing fees and legal fees to do things the right way,” said Dobson, who is based in Savannah. “The problem for many people is that there currently is no right way.”

Martinez said he plans to push this point in Washington: There should be a process for undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status. Although Martinez had a master’s degree in consumer behavior from his native Mexico when he arrived in the U.S. on a work visa, it took him nine years to become naturalized. The process ended for him last summer, but it often doesn’t happen for many others.

“The current visa programs are so restrictive that most people don’t use them,” Dobson said. “They are very burdensome, very costly, and you just don’t get much benefit for the burden.”

Dobson said he is frequently contacted by employers who want to hire foreign workers but back off once he explains the complex and lengthy process. For low-skilled workers, including those in the agricultural field, obtaining a visa is even less likely, he said.

And though Martinez’s path to citizenship was a success, Dobson said he knows many other highly skilled workers who aren’t allowed to stay. He said a recent client worked as a patent attorney and had a doctorate but did not meet the requirements to receive one of 65,000 visas the U.S. government gives out each year to temporarily employ foreign workers.

Other local groups, including the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition and the Me ican-American Coalition, are showing their support for reform in different ways. The immigration coalition is sending letters to members of Congress, according to co-chairman Eric Esquivel. Martinez, the outgoing treasurer for the Mexican-American Coalition, said the group is preparing scorecards to track how congressmen vote on immigration reform. And during his lobbying trip, Martinez will dangle a carrot before lawmakers — the possibility of future Latino votes. After Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in 2012, Martinez said Republican action on immigration reform could change their minds.

Describing members of his community as “conservative” and “family-oriented,” Martinez said party loyalty could switch once immigration no longer is a top concern.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow reporter Allison Stice at

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