The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Activists Seek Broader Immigration Debate Beyond the Beltway

While some acquiesce, many find ‘solutionsâ€TM short-sighted, inadequate

by Michelle Chen

For many involved in fighting for immigrants' rights on a regular basis, the prospects offered by current legislation are an objectionable mix of too little, too late and too punitive.

Apr. 17, 2006 – Massive protests across the country have amplified the controversy surrounding immigrants’ rights, but in the political tug-of-war over revamping the country’s immigration policy, a wide gulf has emerged between the agendas in Washington and the communities whose freedoms are at stake in the fray.

While the immigrants-rights movement has united in opposition to the House of Representatives’ bill to criminalize undocumented immigration, which passed last December, the alternative congressional proposals that have since emerged garner more dissonant reactions. Many centrist public-interest organizations have endorsed Senate legislation combining punitive policies with programs to allow more immigrants to live and work legally in the United States. Other groups, however, are calling for deeper reforms they say Capitol Hill has steadfastly avoided.

The proposal that politicians and media outlets couch as a counterpoint to the House bill is the Senate Judiciary Committee’s proposal to provide temporary work authorization for new arrivals and potentially legalize the status of millions of undocumented immigrants. Despite concerns about measures that would expand immigrant detention and deportation, mainstream immigrants-rights groups like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) say the Senate Judiciary bill is the most politically viable proposal on the table.

Many centrist public-interest organizations have endorsed compromise legislation in the Senate. Other groups, however, are calling for deeper reforms they say Capitol Hill has steadfastly avoided.

"What people on the streets don’t understand is that in the Beltway, it’s really about… the political process and not necessarily the merit of the provisions," said Eric Gutierrez, a legislative attorney with MALDEF.

But more progressive groups are wary of any compromise when it comes to the freedom and livelihood of immigrants. Son Ah Yun, an organizer with the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, a coalition of immigrants-rights and social-service groups, told The NewStandard that what grassroots groups want to see is a means by which immigrants can become citizens.

The challenge that Congress has yet to meet, said Yun, is creating "a pathway to citizenship for all those that are here… that’s not [done] in a piecemeal fashion, but that’s holistic, and that doesn’t break apart families, that doesn’t take away people’s rights as workers, that protects everybody here in the country."

Under the Judiciary Committee’s legalization proposal, crafted primarily by Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), immigrants could obtain permanent legal status after paying back taxes and fines, passing a criminal background check and demonstrating knowledge of English, US history and civics.

The bill’s guest-worker program would admit several hundred thousand immigrants per year and eventually offer an opportunity to petition for permanent legal status.

To make the bill more palatable on the Senate floor, some legislators have moved to further compromise the Committee’s centrist approach with additional restrictions, like limiting the full legalization program to people with over five years of residency. Many newer arrivals would have to join the guest-worker program, while the most recent immigrants would have to leave the country.

Some groups warn that conditional legalization programs would only solidify existing inequalities.

Some groups warn that conditional legalization programs would only solidify existing inequalities.

"The unfortunate thing about the Kennedy-McCain bill is that it set a false ceiling of what’s possible for immigration reform," said Chris Newman, legal programs coordinator with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. Rather than a system "where people are told they can come work, but then they’ve got to go home," he said a more sensible policy would simply be to offer standard visas to new arrivals.

Critics point out restrictive caveats embedded in the Judiciary Committee’s legalization provisions. An immigrant who has committed social-security fraud, for example, would likely be barred from gaining legal status. An untold number of undocumented immigrants have used false Social Security numbers to secure jobs, due to immigration laws enacted in 1986 that made it a crime to hire anyone without proof of government work authorization. As a result, they typically pay into the Social Security system with no expectation of a future return.

Since most undocumented immigrants have managed to enter the workforce, immigrants-rights advocates estimate fraud is so widespread that the proposed legalization program could end up being much less generous than it looks.

"Very few people would qualify," predicted Arnoldo Garcia, an organizer with the California-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. And even among those with clean records, he added, "how many people would want to register and say, ‘I am guilty of being unlawfully in the country,’ and pay a fine and pay back taxes?... It’s a system set up to deport people and to fail people."

Some provisions in the compromise bill would even grease the skids for anti-immigrant crackdowns: instituting an electronic surveillance system and expanding border patrols and detention facilities.

Some provisions in the compromise bill would even grease the skids for crackdowns on undocumented immigrants: instituting a national electronic-surveillance system to verify immigrants’ legal status, expanding border patrols and detention facilities, and encouraging local police to cooperate with federal authorities to root out undocumented immigrants. Like other proposals in Congress, the bill would also target immigrants through the criminal code, redefining "aggravated felonies" to include more crimes involving immigrants.

But some say that in the political give-and-take, tighter enforcement might be a necessary trade-off for legalization. Angelica Salas, executive director of Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said that in supporting the compromise, the group’s aim is, "first, we legalize, and then we figure out a more humane enforcement mechanism. But understanding the reality, we know that this is the best bill."

Others reject the concept of regarding undocumented immigrants as criminals until they prove themselves worthy of legal status. Garcia of the National Network said that more punitive immigration laws would "codify the shadows" in which the undocumented are forced to live. It sends the message, he told TNS, that "if you want to be here, you’re going to have to be completely invisible."

Activists opposed to the detention and deportation of immigrant families argue that the legislation under consideration would expand an enforcement system that has for years criminalized and divided immigrant communities.

The bill would relax the rules governing "expedited removal," allowing immigration authorities to deport people immediately, without judicial review, if they are discovered in the vicinity of the US border within two weeks of arrival. It would also codify the practice of indefinite detention, countering recent Supreme Court rulings limiting the government’s discretion to continuously extend an individual’s detention period.

To Prince Brown, who came to New York City from Jamaica in the 1980s, Congress’s reform proposals ignore the devastation that "alien removal" has wrought on his family and countless others. Apprehended on a minor drug offense, Brown, a legal resident, spent five years separated from his family in detention facilities in New York, New Jersey and Louisiana.

After being released on bond, Brown now works with Families for Freedom, an organization that helps defend families from deportation. In his view, lawmakers are "focusing on legalizing people, but nobody’s focusing on the detention part or the deportation part."

Under the current system, Brown said, "you’re destroying so much families; you’re leaving kids motherless and fatherless, you understand? That’s what they need to start looking at and focusing on."

Groups that see immigration as an international human-rights issue say that the debate in Washington over "comprehensive reform" fails to consider systemic factors driving immigration, such as glaring wealth disparities endemic in the global economy.

Noting that immigrants to the United States represent only a small portion of the nearly 200 million estimated international migrants around the world, Salas remarked, "It’s very important to recognize first and foremost what’s happening that is forcing people to leave. And none of these proposals actually are answering that."

Salas said that in addition to opening domestic legal channels for immigrants, the US should negotiate with other governments to provide protections for workers moving between countries and to help foster pro-worker changes abroad, so would-be immigrants can seek economic opportunity without leaving their native communities.

In Garcia’s view, Congress’s focus on establishing a controlled flow of immigrant labor is a calculated one. The main problem with the current immigration reform effort, he said, is not the tension between "enforcement" and "legalization," but the fusing of the two for economic gain.

"The government has the power to shut the border," he said. "But it doesn’t want to do that. It’s using its power to try to create a permanent pool of cheap, exploitable and disposable labor. That’s what they’re trying to do with these proposals. ’Cause they know they can’t get rid of everybody."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


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This News Article originally appeared in the April 17, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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