Monday, March 20, 2006


By William Fisher

There are some 10 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today, and there is no sign that the flow is going to decrease any time soon.

They pick and pack our agricultural produce, serve patrons at our hotels and restaurants and resorts, and help build our new houses. Most of them come from the southern border with Mexico. Many of them have been here for years and have children who were born in the U.S.

So serious is the problem of illegal immigration that Governors of some of the states on the U.S.-Mexican border – Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California -- have actually declared “states of emergency” in an effort to get the attention of Federal officials and lawmakers. Many raise the specter of Al Qaida allies sneaking in to commit acts of terrorism.

The Department of Homeland Security, which governs border control, appears incapable of dealing with the problem. That has led to the formation of citizens’ vigilante groups patrolling the border to “help” Border Patrol agents to identify and capture lawbreakers.

Meanwhile, skilled hi-tech workers, prospective university enrollees, and even State Department-sponsored exchange students, can’t get visas to come here. And those who come seeking asylum from political persecution or domestic abuse face an increasingly impossible task of convincing immigration judges of the validity of their claims.

Given these facts, the mantra of just about everyone who speaks on this subject has become “America’s immigration system is broken and must be fixed”. But that’s about where the agreement ends. As to what do about the problem, there are almost as many “solutions” as there are immigrants.

This was to be the year of comprehensive immigration reform legislation. President Bush spent a good deal of his once-hefty “political capital” to advocate for a “guest worker” program. But so polarized are the views of state officials, legislators and advocacy groups representing all points on the political spectrum that Congress-watchers are expressing serious doubt that 2006 will see any meaningful progress toward such reform.

Tom Barry, Policy Director for the International Relations Center (IRC), predicted flatly, “There will be no comprehensive reform proposal approved by the U.S. Congress during this session or any session in the near future because the immigration restrictionists have seized control of the debate.”

What is likely, experts agree, is a battle royal between two critical GOP constituencies: the “law-and-order conservatives” and business interests that rely on immigrant labor. One camp wants to tighten borders and deport people who are here illegally; the other seeks to bring illegal workers out of the shadows and acknowledge their growing economic importance.

The issue is complicated by the competing -- and sometimes counter-intuitive – demands of a wide range of groups and coalitions. Usually conservative business interests, particularly in the fields of agriculture, construction, and hospitality, want to open American borders to avail themselves of cheaper labor.

Groups representing states on the U.S.-Mexican border propose adopting draconian measures – including construction of a “security fence” -- to stem the tide of illegal immigrants. Others are advocating legislation that would tighten U.S. border security but give some legal status to newcomers. Still others are focusing on providing “a path to citizenship” for the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.

Legislation reflecting the varied panoply of solutions has already been introduced. Led by conservative Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner, Jr. of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, the House passed a bill in January that would create a giant fence along the Mexican border, and increase criminal penalties for immigration violations -- including some mandatory minimum sentences -- for people who encourage illegal immigration and for immigrants who return to the United States after being deported. It would also broaden the range of deportable aliens so that, for example, repeat drunk drivers can be kicked out of the country.

The House bill would also force employers to verify employees' Social Security numbers against a national database, reimburse sheriffs in the counties that border Mexico for the costs of holding illegal immigrants, and make both detention and deportation of illegal immigrants easier. The Bush administration, which earlier had proposed a “guest worker” program, supported the House the bill, which was passed 239 to 182.

Critics of the House restrictions, including many Senate Republicans, say the curbs would trample states' rights and lead to more unlicensed drivers while ignoring what they believe to be the crux of the problem: the millions of undocumented people already entrenched in the workforce.

In the Senate, two pieces of major legislation were introduced last year. One bill, sponsored by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, calls for increased border security but also creates a guest worker program. It would require illegal aliens to pay all regular fees as well as a $1,000 fine to join the program and, after six years, another $1,000 fine to obtain a green card signifying legal permanent residence. Green card holders eventually can apply for citizenship.

Another bill was introduced last year by two border-state Republicans, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, and Senator John Kyl of Arizona. It proposes a “work-and-return” rationale rather than the McCain-Kennedy “work-and-stay” approach.

Currently at the center of the task of attempting to craft passable Senate legislation is Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who heads the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. His "Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006," would allow new immigrants to work in the country for up to six years without applying for citizenship. It would create a temporary status for the estimated 11 million to 20 million illegal aliens already here, provided they pay their taxes, remain employed, and pass background checks. The Specter bill does not limit the amount of time those workers may remain in that status.

Specter's proposal is likely to meet stiff opposition from champions of the much tougher immigration bill passed by the House. Some observers believe the differences in approach between House and Senate are irreconcilable.

One of the principal supporters of the House approach, Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican and one of the shrillest voices in the immigration debate, said of the Specter proposal, "Words almost fail to describe the threat this bill poses to our national and economic security."

While most civil liberties and immigration experts favor any of the Senate proposals over the “enforcement only” bill passed by the House, they nonetheless express reservations about such issues as privacy, asylum, and due process protections for immigrants.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) calls attention to what it calls the lack of privacy protections in the Specter proposal. It says that under the bill’s “Employment Verification System”, all workers would be required to obtain a federal agency’s permission to work. All employers would be required to participate in a national employment eligibility verification program.

But, the ACLU says, “Legislators have not mandated that the private information flowing to and from the government be encrypted or that the databases be secured. Thus, the data provides a ripe target for identity thieves.”

“Even assuming a near-perfect accuracy rate in the program, millions of legal, eligible American workers could still have their right to work seriously delayed or denied -- while they fight bureaucratic red tape to resolve errors,” the ACLU charges.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents millions of employers, has also expressed strong objections to the employment verification provisions.

The ACLU says the government also would be given “extraordinary powers to detain non-citizens indefinitely without meaningful review.” This move, it claims, “would potentially place many non-citizens in a legal ‘black hole’ that subjects them to a life sentence after having served a criminal sentence, or, in some cases, without ever having been convicted of a crime.”

Another immigration authority, Karen Musalo, Director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law of the University of California, told us, “The central goal of any comprehensive immigration legislation should be to build and maintain an immigration and judicial system based on core American values like fairness, family, and recognition for one's work; one that recognizes that the consequences of removal for most immigrants and their families are severe. Such legislation must contain safeguards and ensure due process for vulnerable groups seeking protection in the U.S., including refugees, children and victims of trafficking.”

She criticized Senator Specter's legislation for imposing “harsh criminal penalties on undocumented workers and other immigrants for even minor or technical infractions that cause them to lose their legal status, creates a permanent sub-class of immigrant workers with no real protections and no provisions for acquiring long-term legal status, and strips immigrants of judicial review.”

The IRC’s Barry told us, “The battle within the Republican party has been instigated by largely by social conservatives, and it is likely that their positions on enforcement will be adopted by the Republican party leadership, leaving the Democrats looking in the public mind as if that they are the ones without a clear stance against illegal immigration.”

He says the Kennedy-McCain bill is the “most comprehensive” legislation being considered, but adds, “This is a nonstarter in Congress and in U.S. society because of the fierce restrictionist sentiment that now frames the political debate over immigration in the United States.”

Apparently drowned out by the shrill charges and counter-charges in the immigration debate is a simple truth articulated by George Hunsinger, McCord professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and coordinator of Church Folks for a Better America. He told us, “No human being -- whether citizen or non-citizen -- should be placed outside the protections of the law. No one who performs needed work should be denied fair wages and decent conditions. A society that exploits immigrants for their labor while declaring them illegal is caught in a tangle of contradictions.”

But this is an election year for the U.S. Congress. So I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that simple truth to sink in.

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