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Senateâ€TMs Shot at Immigration ‘Reformâ€TM Steers Less Exclusive Cours

by Michelle Chen

Mar. 28, 2006 – Following massive demonstrations across the country and high tensions in Washington, the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday hammered out a legislative compromise, ushering in the next stage in the battle over immigration reform.

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The bill, titled the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, will now go to the full Senate for deliberation.

One key piece of the bill would provide a road to legal status for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. The plan, based on a proposal by Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), would grant a new type of visa to undocumented immigrants who first pay any outstanding taxes, plus $2,000 in fines for entering the US illegally. They would also have to undergo background checks and learn English and American civics.

The final text of the bill was not available at press time, but based on an earlier version of the markup and reports on subsequent amendments from Committee members, the Act would also expand the guest-worker system that allows laborers to come to the US temporarily for work. It would offer a three-year visa that could be renewed once and give guest workers the option of bringing their family members and to eventually become citizens.

The bill maps out a process for undocumented immigrants and guest workers to attain full permanent-residency status, pending the processing of other immigrants already in the queue for green cards. An employer could petition on a worker’s behalf for permanent-resident status, or, after four years under the program, workers could themselves petition for permanent status. The number of guest workers allowed at any time would be subject to a cap, starting at 400,000 and adjusted according to demand in the labor market.

Business interests and the White House have supported the idea of guest-worker systems to foster a continual supply of cheap labor. Workers’ rights advocates, however, have warned that while unregulated immigrant labor is often exploitative, a guest-worker program without adequate labor protections would only legitimize poor wages and conditions.

Attempting to address some of the concerns of labor groups, the amended language of the bill would establish some federal labor protections and prevailing wage standards for guest workers.

In contrast to an earlier markup of the legislation, the new compromise does not require guest workers to live outside the United States for one year once the first three-year term is complete before renewing their visas. Unemployed workers would also have a slightly longer timeframe – 60 instead of 45 days – to find a new job before the government would be able to force them out of the country.

For farm workers specifically, the Committee approved a smaller pilot guest-worker program. The "earned adjustment" program, inserted by Dianne Feinstein (D-California), would create a special "blue card" for farm workers, issued to those who can prove they have worked 150 days in the United States between 2003 and 2005. A sustained work record over several years would qualify a worker for a green card.

Addressing longstanding impediments to the reunification of immigrant families, the bill also shifts the spouses, parents and children of immigrants out of the current backlog of family-based visa applications.

Senator Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) secured a provision to protect social-service groups from criminal prosecution for serving undocumented immigrants. That provision counters a highly controversial measure passed by the House last year, which would make it a crime to knowingly aid undocumented immigrants. The House bill, which has sparked widespread criticism from humanitarian organizations and immigrants’ rights groups, would also make it a felony to live illegally in the United States.

Some rights groups have chafed at proposed measures to step up border patrols and to establish a controversial electronic surveillance system to track the employment of undocumented immigrants. Instead of heavier regulations, the New York Based Immigrant Coalition in Action, for instance, has been calling on Congress to reduce the detention and deportation of immigrants and work to end deaths along the US-Mexico border.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to bypass the committee process, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) has introduced his own immigration reform legislation, based on punitive measures proposed in the original Judiciary Committee bill. His proposal would restrict immigrants’ access to courts, expand border-patrol forces, and redefine "aggravated felony" to sweep in more crimes tied to facilitating illegal immigration.

As lawmakers grapple with the thorny politics of immigration reform, immigrants themselves have turned out by the thousands to affirm their presence as a permanent pillar on the American landscape.

The New York Times reported that on Monday, as the Senate Committee deliberated, tens of thousands of mostly Latino youth in Los Angeles left school to march in protest of proposed restrictions on immigrants’ rights , building on the momentum of smaller-scale walkouts last Friday. In San Francisco, about 1,000 protesters rallied at Feinstein’s offices. On Saturday, an estimated 500,000 protesters marched throughout the city, and similar protests have sprung up in Detroit, Boston and Washington, DC.

Although activists are uncertain how the roiling debate on Capitol Hill will ultimately play out for immigrant communities, Marielena Hincapié, director of programs at the National Immigration Law Center, told The NewStandard, "At the very least, it’s without a doubt that the marches around the country – particularly the strong marches in LA – must have had an impact.... So, I think from that perspective, it’s definitely a victory for immigrants."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Report originally appeared in the March 28, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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