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Hagel-Martinez divides the movement
"Our position is no compromise"

May 19, 2006 | Page 4

LEE SUSTAR examines the "compromise" immigration legislation taking shape in the Senate--and a debate among immigrant rights organizations about how to respond.

AS GEORGE W. Bush called for sending National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, a split emerged in the immigrant rights movement over so-called compromise legislation in the Senate.

The deal--named for its chief negotiators, Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Mel Martinez (R-Fla.)--has been sharply criticized among activists because it divides undocumented immigrants into three legal categories and includes a guest-worker program demanded by Corporate America.

Yet when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced May 12 that the stalled legislation would be revived, several major immigrant organizations endorsed the bill, including the National Council of La Raza, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

The National Immigration Forum (NIF)--whose top officers include the political director of the UNITE HERE union, Thomas Snyder--issued a statement which declared that the "Hagel-Martinez compromise includes the right architecture for real immigration reform." The other main union on the NIF board, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), views Hagel-Martinez as "a step forward," according to a union spokesperson.

By contrast, Nativo López, president of the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) and a key organizer of mass marches in Los Angeles on March 25 and May 1, called the proposals "nothing less than a categorization of the immigrant workforce into a bantu apartheid system," akin to the old racist system in South Africa. "[Immigrant workers] will languish in those categories for years with no absolute guarantee of legal status," he told Socialist Worker.

Ana Avendaño, associate general counsel at the AFL-CIO and director of the labor federation's immigrant worker program, called the three-tiered structure "punitive and inhuman. The fact that the national Latino organizations and the national immigrant rights organizations have signed on to it is very offensive."

Because of this support for the legislation, however, Democratic Senate staffers will have the political cover to slam the door on critics of Hagel-Martinez, even as immigrant rights activists from around the U.S. come to Washington for a national day of lobbying May 17. "They're saying, 'You can lobby all you want, but the deal is done,'" Avendañao said in an interview.

She pointed out that 85 percent of immigrant children live in mixed households with citizens and non-citizens--and that many of the low-wage workers who would have to travel to the border to apply for legal status under Hagel-Martinez would lose their jobs. "The bottom line is that they need to construct a punitive program that doesn't sound like amnesty" to get the bill through Congress, Avendaño said.

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UNDER HAGEL-Martinez, undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. more than five years could apply to become citizens after six years, paying fines and any back taxes, and learning English.

Those in the U.S. more than two years but less than five could apply for status as guest workers, but only after exiting and re-entering the U.S. at a port of entry--a setup, critics say, for instant deportations.

The rest of the undocumented immigrants--more than 2 million people who have come to the U.S. in the last two years--would be forced to leave and could only apply to return under the guest-worker program.

Hagel-Martinez could also put immigrants at risk for deportation if they used false documentation to obtain a job, immigration lawyers say.

And as Hagel and Martinez boasted in a recent article, their proposals would sharply increase enforcement. "The bill adds nearly 15,000 new Border Patrol agents over the next six years," they wrote. "It dramatically increases the number of immigration investigators (1,000), immigration inspectors (1,250) and customs inspectors (1,000) as well. And it authorizes the Department of Homeland Security to make important improvements and additions to border infrastructure necessary to secure the border."

Moreover, both the House and Senate bills contain numerous punitive measures, as Dori Cahn reported on the New American Media Web site. If passed, they would lead to deportation of accused gang members who were not convicted of any crime, expand the numbers of "aggravated felonies" that would launch deportation proceedings, restrict the right to naturalization based on past conduct, and otherwise limit access to citizenship.

The three-tiered structure of Hagel-Martinez led to opposition from organizations and unions--including the Laborers International Union--that had earlier supported a guest worker plan in a proposal by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). "[Hagel-Martinez] is not good enough for us," Yanira Merino, the Laborers policy director on immigration, said in an interview. "It still leaves a good number of immigrants without a path to citizenship."

Nevertheless, SEIU--with the largest number of immigrants of any union--views Hagel-Martinez as a "step forward," according to union spokesperson Avril Smith.

SEIU, along with the Laborers and UNITE HERE, are part of the Change to Win coalition, a group of unions that split from the AFL-CIO last summer. Now, however, UNITE HERE and SEIU are apparently alone among labor organizations in backing Hagel-Martinez.

SEIU defends its position on the basis that Hagel-Martinez departs from the enforcement-only provisions of HR 4437, proposed legislation passed by the House last December that would make felons of the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S.

SEIU officials are critical of the Hagel-Martinez proposal that would require all those who have come to the U.S. in the last two years to leave the country. "It's one of the things we would like to see improved, obviously," Smith said. "We think that all people who are contributing to the economy should have the right to earn citizenship."

Yet having backed the guest-worker provisions of the McCain-Kennedy bill, SEIU is prepared to accept Hagel-Martinez as a framework for immigration reform. "We think that we need to get control of our borders, and deal with the reality that workers are going to continue to come to this country," Smith said. "We need to create a safe, controlled and orderly process for that to happen."

By taking this position, SEIU is creating a split in the immigrant rights movement, says MAPA's Nativo López.

The NIF, National Council of La Raza, LULAC and SEIU are playing a "dangerous game with the Democrats," López said. "This game of 'improving' Hagel-Martinez is a betrayal on its face, because any compromise based on it would mean dividing families, supporting enforcement measures and undermining the rights of all immigrant workers. We take the position of no compromise, and no division of our families. Better no immigration reform bill this year than this bill."

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