Bush may try to revive immigrant legislation

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News Analysis

Many thought that immigration legislation had been killed by the Republicans in the House, but maybe, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of its death are exaggerated. If the logjam between the House and Senate breaks soon, the immigrants’ rights movement will have to step up its activity.

In December, the House passed HR 4437, with draconian anti-immigrant measures, turning undocumented immigrants and those who help them into felons, and no legalization of the undocumented.

In May, after massive pro-immigrant demonstrations, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary passed a less repressive “comprehensive” bill which allowed for the legalization of most undocumented. It would also have set up a problematic guest worker program.

But Senate Republicans pushed the final bill, S 2611, in a more anti-immigrant direction. Only those undocumented who had been in the country longest would be able to “legalize,” fines for legalization were jacked up, and an amendment declares English to be the “national language.” Key due process rights would be damaged.

Most immigrants’ rights supporters conclude that the Senate bill is not acceptable without further amendments.

The next normal step would be for the Senate and House to name members to a conference committee to reconcile the two bills. But Republican leaders of the House initially refused to name their conference committee members. Instead, they organized a series of anti-immigrant hearings around the country, to drum up opposition to S 2611, and support for the “enforcement only” approach. Senate Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) organized his own hearings in Philadelphia on July 5. Meanwhile, Homeland Security continues to increase immigration raids and deportations.

The House hearings were widely denounced even in the corporate press as an election gimmick. At a hearing in San Diego, Democrats Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), Grace Napolitano (Calif.) and others managed to undermine the Republicans by getting witnesses, chosen to represent a tough law enforcement point of view, to admit that deporting immigrants would harm the economy, and that having local police do immigration enforcement would divert resources from fighting crime.

At Specter’s hearing, Michael Bloomberg, New York’s Republican mayor, bluntly stated that if all undocumented immigrants were deported, his city’s economy would collapse. The Rev. Luis Cortes Jr., president of Esperanza USA, explained that if local and state police were assigned to do immigration enforcement, crime fighting would be harmed because immigrants would fear talking to the police.

Ellen Connelly, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Council of The Service Employees union, said, “As long as employers have the ability to exploit workers because they lack legal status, the current system will continue to drive down wages and benefit standards for all workers.” Only legalization will solve this problem, she said.

And in a hearing held by the Senate Armed Forces Committee on July 10, witnesses testified that threatening immigrants with deportation might undermine the morale of the many immigrants, and people with undocumented immigrant relatives, who currently serve in the armed forces. General Peter Pace, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, became quite emotional when relating the experiences of his Italian immigrant parents.

Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) is functioning as an emissary between President Bush and the House and Senate Republican leaderships so that a bill can be passed and signed before November. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has suggested that the conference committee might be getting under way soon. Judging from comments he made in Chicago on July 7, Bush appears agreeable to legislation which first implements the House Republicans’ enforcement-only approach, while promising to “phase in” guest worker and legalization programs “later.” Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez has also suggested that the administration may be pressing for a quick resolution.

House Republican hard-liners have said they will accept a guest worker program but not “amnesty.” Thus the danger is that Congress may pass a bill containing no help for the undocumented and a severe increase in repression, while adding an anti-labor guest worker program. Demonstrations and lobbying are essential to prevent this.

There has been a lull in the large-scale marches for immigrants’ rights. It will be necessary for immigrants and their supporters to hit the streets again during the summer to protest the raids and deportations as well as bad legislation, and also to massively register voters for November, when removing at least six Republican senators and 15 House members will change the legislative balance of forces in a direction more favorable to immigrants.