To Napa County resident Frances Ortiz-Chavez, the growing Latino population in the U.S. is becoming an ever-more influential voice for federal immigration reform, and last week offered proof that elected officials in Washington, D.C., are listening.
On Monday, a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators unveiled a blueprint of policy proposals on immigration reform, including pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, tougher border security and stricter enforcement on employers who hire undocumented workers, and easing the process for legal immigration.
President Barack Obama followed with his own, similar policy proposals in a speech on Tuesday.
Ortiz-Chavez and other advocates for immigration reform in Napa County spoke last week of having cautious optimism that the reform proposals could be accomplished.
If the proposals become law, they figure to have a sweeping impact locally. Napa County had an immigrant population of 32,000 in 2010, or almost a quarter of its total population of about 137,000 people, according to a 2012 Migration Policy Institute study funded by the Napa Valley Community Foundation.
Estimates of those living illegally in the county vary. A 2011 study from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California estimated that 16,000 undocumented immigrants were living in Napa County, based on 2008 figures. The Migration Policy Institute study estimated 10,000 to 11,000 people from 2006 to 2008.
Ortiz-Chavez, the center director for Puertas Abiertas Community Resource Center in Napa, said the reaction in Napa County has been guarded, as multiple immigration reform packages have failed in Congress in the past several decades. She said she was speaking as a 40-year member of the Mexican-American community in Napa County.
“As far as the need for it, I would say people are excited,” Ortiz-Chavez said. “But they don’t want to get overly excited because this has come up before. It’s exciting the conversation is taking place. People have been waiting for it.”
The Latino population is the fastest-growing demographic in Napa County; the Migration Policy Institute study reported that this population grew from 15,000 people in 1990 to 44,000 people in 2010, with a little more than half native-born.
Seeing this demographic shift in Napa County, and how similar trends have swept across California and other U.S. states, Ortiz-Chavez said it amounts to a significant electoral voice.
“I’ve seen the changes in the demographics,” Ortiz-Chavez said. “The Latino population has really grown, and is a voting voice. They’re the ones driving this discussion, not the undocumented.”
It’s also led to an opportunity at accomplishing significant reform in Congress that would have direct benefits locally, said Jose Hernandez, a board member for the Napa County Hispanic Network.
“The path to becoming a citizen is important — it’s important for self-respect,” Hernandez said. “It’s important that those interested in pursuing this are given an opportunity. They want to be part of the mainstream workforce. They’re here — they’re part of the fabric of the community. We need to move forward, so they too can come out of the shadows.”
Father Gordon Kalil of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Napa echoed that sentiment, but said he was wary of how partisan gridlock in Congress could defeat the reform plans’ chances of passage.
“It’s not a desire, it’s a responsibility,” Kalil said. “For me personally, it’s a passion. I see so many people in the shadows. I’m hopeful, always. Where I always become concerned is the lack of ‘do-anything’ in Congress today. It’s sad to me that we as a nation could stand by when there’s so many people that need help.”