Senate panel yields to marching millions but more battles lie ahead

WASHINGTON — The surging movement for immigrant rights hit Congress like a political tsunami last week, splitting Republicans and pressuring Senate Democrats to fight back against harsh anti-immigrant measures in a hotly contested election year.

Senators returned to Capitol Hill on March 27 after a 10-day recess, during which demonstrations of tens of thousands took place in Milwaukee, Phoenix and Denver and nearly a million marched in Los Angeles to protest the Sensenbrenner bill, HR 4437, which would criminalize 12 million undocumented immigrants. (See page 3 for more coverage.)

The bill was railroaded through the House in December by Republican leaders and the White House. The protesters have demanded comprehensive reform that provides a path to citizenship.

The senators were greeted here by 2,000 clergy of many faiths and union and community leaders from over 38 states at a rally on the west lawn of the Capitol. The message was: Undocumented immigrants are workers, not criminals! The rally was majority Latino but included large numbers of African American and white protesters.

Ana Maria Archila, director of the Latin American Integration Center in New York, led the crowd chanting, “Today we march! Tomorrow we vote!”

Over 200 of the clergy left the rally and walked up to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. They had mock handcuffs dangling from their wrists, a warning that faith leaders are prepared to engage in civil disobedience if a bill like HR 4437 is enacted.

By evening, the cumulative effect of the street protests moved Senate Judiciary members to push “immigrant friendly” amendments through the Republican-dominated committee. The amended bill passed by a 12-6 vote (8 Democrats and 4 Republicans in favor, 6 Republicans against).

Key amendments deleted measures that would have criminalized undocumented immigrants. The new draft provides for the legalization of undocumented people here since January 2004 and provides for a path to permanent residency, including for agricultural workers.

Also added were “Dream Act” provisions that would legalize undocumented students and allow them to pay lower resident tuition at state colleges.

A cheer went up when a speaker at the rally announced that Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) had introduced an amendment to remove HR 4437 language making it a crime to provide food, shelter, medical assistance or even spiritual guidance to the undocumented. The Durbin measure was incorporated in the bill approved by the Senate committee.

The Rev. Maria Castellanos of the United Church of Christ raised her arms in prayer: “O God, your law is the supreme law. … We shall not deny a cup of water or a loaf of bread.”

Hundreds at the rally were members of the Laborers Union. Terry O’Sullivan, president of the union, said, “It is disingenuous to say it is OK for immigrant workers to build our skyscrapers … empty our bedpans and then tell these same workers they are criminals and must leave the country. Real immigration reform must provide a path to citizenship.”

A 400,000-a-year guest worker program with a path to permanent residency was also included. The bill also significantly increases border and interior enforcement personnel, equipment and provisions.

Some of the protesters came from as far away as California. Many came from Chicago, another city where hundreds of thousands recently flooded the streets to protest HR 4437.

Reactions from most immigrant rights groups ranged from cautiously optimistic to enthusiastic. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney hailed the progressive, pro-immigrant sections of the Senate bill, while cautioning that the federation does not support any form of guest worker program.

Immigrant rights advocates vowed to keep up the heat. The Rev. Michael Harrison, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Youngstown, Ohio, told the rally that April 10 has been set for huge immigrant rights demonstrations in six major cities, including Washington, where the goal is to bring 100,000 protesters.

“Today we are starting our pledge campaign asking every senator to vote against this repressive legislation,” Harrison said. “We will take this pledge to every corner of this country. We will register and mobilize hundreds of thousands to vote in the 2006 elections. … Now is the time for all Americans, with or without papers, to join arms with the message, ‘Let Our People Stay!’“

In the next several weeks there will be a fight on the Senate floor. Frist will try to push his repressive “enforcement only” bill, SB 2454, as a right-wing alternative to the Judiciary Committee bill. Scores of proposed pro- and anti-immigrant amendments to the committee bill are expected. The White House will likely exercise its influence to combine repression with a guest worker program, but without a path to legalization or amnesty for the undocumented.

The final result will depend on continued pressure, immigrant rights advocates said.

“Pressure must be united, broadened and kept on every member of the Senate for legalization with a path to citizenship, labor rights, family reunification, due process and no criminalization for immigrant workers, present and future,” said Joelle Fishman, chair of the Political Action Commission of the Communist Party USA.

Emile Schepers contributed to this article.



Rosalío Muñoz
Rosalío Muñoz

Rosalío Muñoz is a long-time activist and historian of Chicana/Chicano people’s history and culture and UCLA student activism. He lives in Los Angeles, California. Rosalío Muñoz es activista e historiador desde hace mucho tiempo de la historia y cultura de los chicanos/chicanos y del activismo estudiantil de UCLA. Vive en Los Ángeles, California.