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As you read this, the United States has 11 million aspiring citizens who rent or own homes, raise families, work hard, start businesses, pay taxes and do their fair share in thousands of cities and towns across our country. That sounds great, until you realize they live here in second-class status. With the Senate Judiciary Committee opening debate last week on the immigration bill from the bi-partisan “Gang of Eight,” we’re finally moving toward solving this crisis.

Immigrants founded this nation and have played a vital role in building communities across Montana. With the sole exception of Native Americans, we Montanans who call the U.S. our home, are all immigrants. Thankfully for all of us, being American is about loving the country you call home, regardless of where you – or your ancestors – were born.

However, today’s immigrants can’t contribute fully, or reap the fair rewards of their hard work, without a roadmap to citizenship. Without citizenship and all the rights and protections that come with it, immigrant workers can become subject to exploitation. They can be forced to work for illegal wages in unsafe conditions. Too often, their families are living in fear. They are constantly vulnerable to intimidation, retaliation, and termination. Through business competition, the exploitation drives wages down for all workers and takes money from the hands of would-be, small business customers, weakening consumer demand and local economies.

In immigration reform, we’re talking about win-win economics – good jobs, growth for responsible businesses, and a flourishing tax base.

From a worker perspective, with a proper process in place, immigrant workers will be free to join unions and stand together with American-born workers in exercising their rights, particularly with regard to job safety and fair wage payments. Now is the time for real reform that builds on simple Montana values – work hard, get fair pay, pay your taxes, have a better life.

For this country to live up to its ideals, hard work must be fairly rewarded. That’s the foundation of the American Dream. For years, DREAMers – bright young people educated and American in every way except on paper – have been boldly pursuing citizenship. Under current law, they are being forced to go back to countries they hardly know. Their initiative and passion should be rewarded with opportunity ... to become citizens, attend college, become productive workers and to give back to their communities.

From a small business perspective, drawing that roadmap to citizenship will strengthen the customer base for small businesses and spur new business formation by entrepreneurial immigrants, creating additional new jobs. It will also keep unscrupulous competitors from exploiting temporary workers, cheating them on their paychecks, and undercutting the many good, responsible small businesses in Montana that are committed to treating workers fairly.

Immigration reform goes beyond economics too. Working people and small business owners across Montana believe that our immigration laws should reflect our country’s values as a democratic society. We don’t believe in second-class citizens or the exploitation of workers.

The Montana AFL-CIO and the Montana Small Business Alliance look forward to working together toward a solution in the months ahead. The Senate’s “Gang of Eight” – four Republicans and four Democrats, have shown that immigration isn’t a partisan issue. It’s an American issue that requires all elected leaders to work toward solutions.

Everyone in Montana and across America – regardless of where they were born or what they look like – should be able to participate and contribute in communities and economies with full rights and equal protections. It’s time to do the right thing and enact real immigration reform.

Al Ekblad is the executive secretary of the Montana State AFL-CIO, the home of the Montana labor movement. Brian McGregor is the owner of the Silver Dollar Saloon in Butte and serves on the steering committee of the Montana Small Business Alliance.

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