The immigration reform bill in the Senate, originally S 744, passed by a vote of 68 to 32 last Thursday afternoon. It leaves considerable controversy in its wake. This must not be allowed to divide the immigrant rights coalition and thus hamper the struggle in the House and beyond.
The bill as originally written by the bipartisan Senate "gang of eight" had enough problems with it before this past week. Its plan for legalizing the estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in this country is too long and contains booby traps in the form of income and employment requirements.
But if signed into law, it would still represent a major victory for immigrants, labor and the working class. It would grant legal status to most undocumented, including some who have already been ordered to depart. They would not have fear that being stopped by a traffic cop for a "broken tail light" would lead to their deportation and the incredible suffering that entails.
There are some other positive things in it including a fix for the Hoffman Plastic Products Supreme Court ruling of 2002 (which said that wrongly fired undocumented workers were not entitled to back pay), a more generous version of the DREAM Act (no cutoff when one reaches 31 years of age), and the possibility that some people who have been deported would be allowed to return to the United States and be reunited with their families here. Farmworkers could move to permanent legal immigrant status more quickly. People here under "Temporary Protected Status" could become permanent legal residents. This would be a major break for Haitians who came here after the 2010 earthquake. In states where same-sex marriage is legal, a U.S. citizen spouse could petition for a green card for his or her same-sex spouse. While the Senate bill increases the number of guest worker visas, it also allows them to petition to change jobs and also for green cards (changing their guest worker status to permanent legal resident status with eventual eligibility for citizenship).
On the negative side are new repressive measures plus new guest worker programs for both high and low skilled workers. The legalization program leaves too many people out, and U.S. citizens would no longer be able to petition for visas for their siblings or married family members over 30 years old. The Visa Lottery, which is currently a major way immigrants can come here from Africa and the Caribbean, will disappear.
On Wednesday, in an effort to lure more Republicans on board, the bill's managers tacked on the Corker-Hoeven amendment, which entails sending 20,000 more Border Patrol officers to the U.S.-Mexico border, greatly increasing surveillance of the border area, increasing the scope of the E-Verify program to require all employers to use it to check work eligibility of all new hires, and confiscation of all Social Security and Medicare deposits made by undocumented workers. Corker-Hoeven enraged many, especially in the border region itself, which will be directly affected by the new "security" measures.
In the end all Senate Democrats and Independents voted for the immigration bill, along with 14 Republicans.
Most of the immigrant rights movement and its labor allies, including the AFL-CIO, see the passage of the Senate bill as a victory, although others think the negative elements outweigh the positive ones.
Had the Senate bill been defeated, it is highly improbable that a different, more progressive bill would have got anywhere in this session of Congress. Without a Senate bill, the legislative effort on immigration reform would be dead until at least after the 2014 midterm elections. There is no guarantee that chances will be better after that, although a maximum effort should be mounted to impact the midterms. And if we have to wait until the 2016 elections, there is also no guarantee that Congress would move to the left even then, and in the meantime, it is likely that the government would keep deporting people at its current fast clip of over 1,000 per day.
The situation in the House of Representatives might seem more difficult, because the Republicans hold a 234 to 201 majority. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, opposes legalization, and he has announced that he will not allow the Senate bill to be introduced in his chamber. He will apply the "Hastert rule," which means he will not allow any legislation to advance that does not have the support of a majority of the Republican caucus.
However, there is no filibuster in the House so just a one vote majority is enough to pass a bill. House members have to run for reelection every two years, so there is more of an opportunity for a grassroots mobilization to pressure individual congresspersons into changing their votes.
Many of the Republicans are gerrymandered into super-safe districts. But the demographics of the country are moving in a direction unfavorable to the anti-immigrant crowd, especially with many more Latinos and Asians becoming eligible to vote. The Democrats in the House got more votes than the Republicans in 2012. Finally, public opinion favors legalization.
Whether immigration reform can win in the House is uncertain. But it will require maximum unity; so recriminations about the Senate bill should be set aside.
Photo: Californians visit Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office, calling for a just immigration reform, April 10, 2013. Marilyn Bechtel/PW