Faith, business leaders encouraged by immigration bill

Houston’s faith and business leaders respond to legislation now in Congress

By Cindy George 

Originally published on the Houston Chronicle

  • Photo: Nick De La Torre, Staff / © 2013 Houston Chronicle

The Rev. Kevin Collins, pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, shows support for Gabriela Nieto and her dreams.

The Rev. Kevin Collins, pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, shows support for Gabriela Nieto and her dreams.

Gabriela Nieto was brought to the United States from Mexico as a little girl nearly two decades ago. Even then, she dreamed of becoming a teacher.

Now one semester away from graduating with an education degree from the University of Houston-Downtown, she can accept a position after she finishes student teaching because she has been granted deferred action on her undocumented status and, as of February, has a work permit.

“Today, my burden is less heavy and my dreams of serving my community as an educator are quickly becoming a reality,” the 24-year-old said.

Nieto spoke Tuesday during a news conference called by The Metropolitan Organization at which Houston faith and business leaders responded to a new plan for comprehensive immigration reform.

The legislation, unveiled last week by a bipartisan group of senators, is the first major overhaul of U.S. immigration policy since 1986.

Speakers including Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Bishop Janice Riggle Huie of the Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, and Rabbi David Lyon of Congregation Beth Israel said the highest priority should be creating a process for undocumented immigrants to earn legal status and eventual citizenship.

“We can’t close the door and tell them you can only go so far,” Lyon said. “There is an underground economy, they are not being protected. … As a faith community, we care about them.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics, roughly 11.5 million undocumented immigrants were in the United States in January 2011, with 1.8 million of them in Texas.

Other estimates put the number of unauthorized residents in the Houston area at more than 500,000.

This week, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, said the legislation would undermine border security. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican freshman from Texas, said the provisions offering a path to citizenship were “divisive” and would kill the legislation.

Stan Marek, CEO of the Houston-based Marek Brothers construction company, called the bill “a good beginning” that could bring many people out of the shadows.

“It’s time to give them legal status, to find out who is here, let them get a driver’s license, let them pay taxes, let them be part of our community,” Marek said.

DiNardo expressed concern about an up to 13-year waiting period before some of the undocumented could apply for legal status under the proposal.  “We’re afraid for second-class status for people,” he said.