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WHAT WE THINK
Senate "compromise" would keep immigrants as second-class citizens
Playing politics with immigrants' lives

April 28, 2006 | Page 3

WILL A Democratic "compromise" revive Corporate America's plans to create a guest-worker program that consigns immigrants to second-class citizenship--plus meet the right wing's goal of further militarizing the U.S.-Mexican border?

That's the aim of Sen. Ted Kennedy, who in mid-April backed a failed deal on immigration "reform" legislation negotiated by Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel and Bob Martinez.

The Hagel-Martinez proposal would have financed new border controls and created three classes of undocumented immigrants, forcing nearly 2 million people out of the U.S. right away.

But as the Senate's Easter recess approached, the deal was scuttled by the Republican right--whose leaders in the House of Representatives back HR 4437, a measure that would criminalize all 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and fund construction of a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.

As Congress returned from the recess, George W. Bush weighed in, calling the Hagel-Martinez proposal an "interesting approach"--an endorsement of the bill as Kennedy and its backers plan to revive it this week.

Hagel-Martinez would force nearly 2 million recent immigrants to the U.S. to leave immediately--with the thin hope that they would be readmitted as guest workers. Those in the U.S. more than two years, but less than five, would have to go to ports of entry to apply for guest-worker status--surely a setup for quickie deportations of "undesirables." Those in the U.S. for longer than five years could get in line to become citizens--in several more years, if they pay fines and learn English.

Yet even this twisted, three-tier system was too much for the lock-em-up-and-kick-em-out crowd on the Republican right.

If the White House resuscitates Hagel-Martinez, it wouldn't be the first time Kennedy and Bush have teamed up to back terrible legislation.

It was Kennedy who fronted for Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which imposed new standards for testing in public schools while shortchanging federal funding for education. Then there was the Medicare prescription drug program, which first passed the Senate largely thanks to Kennedy's support--although he later disowned the disastrous legislation that resulted from Senate-House negotiations to finalize the language.

This same dynamic is likely to be seen in any immigration legislation that passes the Senate.

Unlike HR 4437, the Hagel-Martinez bill--or whatever it's named next--wouldn't reclassify undocumented immigrants as felons. As long as it contains some provision for a guest-worker program, it's likely to have the support of business executives whose chief concern is their ability to exploit immigrant labor.

These employers may have the clout to get the bill passed in the Senate. But next would come closed-door sessions between House and Senate negotiators, who are likely to include some of the harsh provisions of HR 4437, authored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).

With the Iraq war increasingly unpopular and the economy leaving growing numbers of workers behind, immigrant bashing and racism is the Republican's last card to play. Thus, the GOP may yet swing further to the right on immigration in the hope of whipping up a backlash and boosting conservative voter turnout.

That is why, as Nativo López of the Mexican American Political Association put it, "Sensenbrenner is absolutely not dead."

As usual, the Democratic Party is giving Republicans cover on the issue. None other than Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York endorsed the recent workplace raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Clinton also endorsed calls to build a wall on at least "certain areas" on the U.S.-Mexican border--an idea that was seen as the province of Pat Buchanan and crackpot xenophobes just a decade ago.

Even if the worst of the Sensenbrenner proposals are stripped out of the final legislation, passage of a "compromise" bill that includes the Hagel-Martinez three-tier guest-worker approach would be no victory.

So why won't organized labor--which called for unconditional amnesty for immigrants back in 2000--take the same stand now?

The AFL-CIO, for its part, has at least opposed any guest-worker program. The breakaway Change to Win coalition, however, is trying to have it both ways. Service Employees International Union leaders, for example, are playing inside politics in Washington with vague formulations about "paths to citizenship," even as pressure from its heavily immigrant membership push the union into organizing big May Day demonstrations.

Amnesty--including the right to citizenship--is the only just solution for the 12 million undocumented workers whose labor is indispensable to the U.S. economy.

The fight for immigrant rights is a struggle for civil rights and workers' rights. Congressional "compromise" or not, the struggle will continue until those rights are won.

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