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Originally published January 28, 2013 at 8:41 PM | Page modified January 29, 2013 at 10:29 AM

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Local push to change laws on immigration

On the day a bipartisan group of U.S. senators unveiled a plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, including granting a path to citizenship to many of the 11 million people in this country illegally, several immigrants told how current laws affect their lives.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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One after another, they spoke of how the nation’s immigration laws have affected their lives:

A teacher whose kindergarten student became homeless, the family sleeping in a car in the school parking lot after their father was detained and eventually deported.

The mother of a college-student daughter and working son whose entire family became targets for removal after her husband was detained by immigration authorities.

And a gay man from the Bahamas, in the United States on an employment visa, who hopes that one day, through marriage to his partner, he’ll be able to obtain permanent legal status to stay here.

The immigrants told their stories at a Monday news conference sponsored by OneAmerica, the state’s largest immigrant advocacy group, at the same time a group of eight bipartisan U.S. senators unveiled the framework for legislation to overhaul those laws.

If the measure is successful, it would be the first comprehensive overhaul since 1986.

Included in the lawmakers four-prong blueprint is a proposal sure to be controversial: providing a path to citizenship for most of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, in exchange for shoring up the nation’s borders.

The senators’ announcement came in advance of a speech President Obama is scheduled to give on immigration Tuesday in Nevada.

After years of watching failed attempts by Congress to fix the nation’s immigration laws, advocates are stoked by momentum coming off the November elections.

Significant support by Hispanic and other minority voters is credited with helping sweep Obama back into office and forcing some conservatives to reconsider previous hard-line positions on immigration policy.

“We are ready for this fight,” said Rich Stolz, executive director of Seattle-based OneAmerica. “We were ready in November 2012 when millions of Latinos, Asian Americans and other immigrant voters came out and showed their power.”

OneAmerica is part of a broad coalition that includes faith, labor and other immigrant groups.

At its news conference, held at the downtown Seattle offices of Service Employees International Union Healthcare, it called for a measure that, among other provisions, would reunite families, protect workers from exploitation, support gender equality and ensure fair treatment in immigration court.

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national organization that favors enforcement, calls this a repeat of the failed attempt to overhaul immigration in 2007. Back then, he points out, the job market was far more robust and unemployment was below 5 percent.

Still, Americans rejected amnesty, he said, just as he suspects they would do this time.

Hilary Stern, executive director of Casa Latina, a day-labor center in Seattle, publicly acknowledged something that has long been known: Most of the organization’s workers are undocumented.

“It’s been an open secret at Casa Latina for a long time,” she said. “We need a legal path for all families.”

Doug Chin, with the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, said the fight for immigration change affects many immigrant groups — not just Latinos, pointing out that about 1.2 million of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants are Asian.

Also among those who spoke Monday was Otts Bolisay, who represents a new area of outreach for immigrant advocates.

Bolisay, who is gay, said that while same-sex couples can now legally marry in Washington, his partner cannot sponsor him for legal status because the federal government doesn’t recognize such unions for the purpose of granting benefits.

“So, my two siblings who are straight found love, got married and are able to stay,” he said. “I found love, I can get married now, finally, but I can’t stay.”

Bolisay works at OneAmerica under an H-1B visa. He has been with his partner for 13 of the 24 years he’s been in this country.

He said he kept resisting the urge to make his relationship status more permanent — moving in together, maybe starting a family — because he knew that eventually he might have to leave.

“I’ve always lived here on a temporary status, always with time ticking down when I’d have to leave again and never certain when I’d be able to come back,” he said.

“But now I know this is for me. And I want to find a way to keep my family together.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

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