Mar. 8, 2006 – Immigration advocates are scurrying to defeat a broadly focused bill that would not only further criminalize undocumented immigrants but also bar the efforts of people fighting on their behalf.
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"The law is all the worst things that could happen," said Nadia Marin-Molina, executive director of the Long Island, New York-based Workplace Project. "It would make a good amount of our work illegal." Marin-Molina's organization offers assistance to immigrant workers.
The bill, sponsored by Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) and officially titled The Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act (HR 4437), would change having invalid immigration status from a civil violation into a criminal act. It would also expand the definition of "alien smuggling" to include anyone who knowingly helps an undocumented immigrant stay in the country. The bill passed the House of Representatives in mid-December by a 239--182 vote and is under consideration in the Senate.
"If you are a church who gives out turkeys [to immigrants], you could be implicated," Marin-Molina predicted.
Julie Dinnerstein, an immigration-law attorney at the New York Immigration Coalition, told The NewStandard the bill could "mean going after Head Start and arresting teachers who work with immigrant parents."
Groups like the Workplace Project plan to escalate pressure against the bill this month by protesting in the Long Island district of Sensenbrenner's co-sponsor, Representative Pete King (R). At the grassroots level, the defensive political posture is backed by activity across the nation as immigrantsâ€™ rights groups and their allies gear up for a fight over immigration reform.
Casa Freehold, an immigrantsâ€™ rights group in New Jersey, for instance, helped organize a vigil against the Sensenbrenner bill in Newark in February. Rita Bentino, an organizer with the group, sees the proposed law as unenforceable but said it "creates a climate of fear."
Though Sensenbrennerâ€™s proposal is the farthest along in the legislative process, starting this week, lawmakers in the Senate are weighing a multitude of measures.
None of the legislation introduced so far offers immigrant advocates all of their wishes, but the Sensenbrenner bill is considered the biggest threat to the rights of the undocumented. In addition to criminalizing immigrants without legal status and those who aid them, the legislation would reverse the burden of proof from the government to an arrested immigrant and narrow the right to a hearing.
Nonetheless, some anti-immigration conservatives say HR 4437 doesn't go far enough.
"The purpose of the bill is to create pressure for [undocumented] people to leave the country," said Jack Martin, special projects director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, in a TNS interview. Martin said he was dismayed that lawmakers scrapped a provision in HR 4437 that would have eliminated the 14th Amendmentâ€™s granting of citizenship to US-born children of undocumented immigrants.
Controversial provisions of HR 4437 remaining in the bill include passages deputizing police officers to enforce immigration law and increasing funds for a 700-mile fence built along the US-Mexico border. The bill also potentially breaks families apart by deporting undocumented parents but allowing their US-born children stay. Under the Sensenbrenner bill, any undocumented family members would be barred from ever legally obtaining a valid immigration status.
"Who are these people?" asked Julie Dinnersteign, an immigration-law attorney at the New York Immigration Coalition. "They are family members of citizens, students in our schools and laborers doing low wage work."
While opposing the Sensenbrenner bill, some rights groups â€“ including the New York Immigration Coalition and many labor unions â€“ are throwing their weight behind an alternative proposal: the Secure America Act and Orderly Immigration Act sponsored by Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts).
That bill would also fund border security measures, but it includes a guest-worker program, a system through which undocumented immigrants could eventually become citizens. Additionally, the McCain-Kennedy bill incorporates reforms to facilitate visas for family re-unification. The bill also charges immigrants who apply for visas about $2,000 and charges them back-taxes not already paid.
"McCain-Kennedy is not the best bill, but itâ€™s a start for immigration reform," said Alvaro Huerta, director of community education and advocacy for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "It recognizes the need to give legal status to immigrants."
However, not all immigrant advocates are satisfied with McCain-Kennedy and say it lacks worker protections.
Jei Fong, organizer with Chinese Staff and Workers Association in New York City, believes that Republicans propose bills like HR 4437 in order to frame the debate so far to the right that a compromise will also be palatable. The result for Fong and other immigrant advocates is a steady decline of working conditions.
"I don't think Sensenbrenner will pass," said Fong. "Itâ€™s a bait to get immigrant groups to sell out to something like McCain-Kennedy."
At a McCain rally in New York City where the senator touted the Secure America Act, many attendants interviewed by The NewStandard voiced reservations the bill but said it was the best shot for comprehensive immigration "reform."
"I think if this [McCain-Kennedy] bill is the opportunity we are given," said Mexican immigrant Eulogio Bravo, "then the people are going to take it."