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WHAT WE THINK
The Senate immigration bill:
Repackaging the attack on immigrants

June 2, 2006 | Page 3

A NATIONWIDE hunt for undocumented workers, an apartheid-like classification scheme for immigrants, a guest-worker program that guts workers rights, a Berlin Wall-style barrier along a militarized U.S.-Mexico border, a discriminatory English national-language law--all backed by a Big Brother plan to hand over Social Security data to the Department of Homeland Security to check immigration status.

These and other repressive and racist measures are jammed into the "compromise" bill on immigration recently passed by the U.S. Senate, named for its main backers, Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Mel Martinez (R-Fla.).

How can this be happening in the wake of the millions-strong demonstrations for immigrant rights--especially with the support of supposed friends of the protests in the Democratic Party? Has the biggest May Day protest in U.S. history somehow led to a victorious backlash by the right, as George W. Bush sends National Guard troops to the border?

In reality, the fight is still in its earliest stages, as the struggle over immigration becomes a key element in the growing social and political polarization in U.S. society.

The immigrant rights movement took off early this year after the House last passed anti-immigrant legislation--known as the Sensenbrenner bill, after its author Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.)--that would turn an estimated 12 million undocumented workers into felons overnight and criminalize those who helped them.

The Sensenbrenner bill reflected the overconfidence of the Republican right--its assumption that something this vicious would go unopposed--as well as political desperation over George W. Bush's falling poll numbers in advance of the 2006 midterm elections.

But the massive protests of immigrants and their supporters put Sensenbrenner and his allies on the defensive.

Meanwhile, Corporate America, which wants to maintain a steady flow of immigrant labor, advanced its own program of "reform"--including a guest-worker program promoted by Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). These efforts led to the Hagel-Martinez bill, backed by both the liberal Kennedy and George W. Bush as the "rational middle ground" of immigration reform.

In reality, Hagel-Martinez is an attempt to combine Corporate America's priorities with enough racist and repressive measures to appease Sensenbrenner and the immigrant-bashers.

Hagel-Martinez would create a "path to citizenship" for undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. more than five years, allowing them legal status after six more years--as long as they pay fines and penalties and prove that they know English. It would also create a guest-worker program for 200,000 low-wage immigrants each year and boost fourfold to 650,000 the number of visas granted to high-tech workers.

This is opposed by Sensenbrenner and the Republican right, which would rather slam the border shut, period--or at least posture about doing so until after the election, when some might do the bidding of the corporations and support a guest-worker program. For now, though, Sensenbrenner is taking a hard line in advance of the House-Senate conference committee assigned to bridge the differences between the two bills.

At the same time, Bush's plan to militarize the border has legitimized the Minutemen and other far-right border vigilantes, whose racist views are presented as a legitimate politics in media ranging from Fox News to National Public Radio.

The right's aggression and the ravings of Republican conservatives have allowed some in the immigrant rights movement to portray the Hagel-Martinez bill as the "realistic" alternative.

For Janet Murguía, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, the passage of Hagel-Martinez is "a major step forward in a debate that is vital to our community and to the nation." Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Vice President Eliseo Medina called the passage of Hagel-Martinez a "step in the right direction," while calling for "significant improvements." Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said that Hagel-Martinez, while "imperfect," would provide "the right architecture and the right elements for comprehensive immigration reform."

"Imperfect" is hardly the word to describe legislation that would assign millions of immigrants to second-class citizenship--not dissimilar to the situation faced by African Americans during the era of legalized Jim Crow segregation after the abolition of slavery.

Under Hagel-Martinez, guest workers who lost their jobs would be forced to leave the country in 60 days unless they found another employer. That would qualify the guest-worker program as what the U.S. State Department considers "involuntary servitude" in other countries--a situation in which "people become trapped in involuntary servitude when they believe an attempted escape from their conditions would result in serious physical harm or the use of legal coercion, such as the threat of deportation."

Indeed, Hagel-Martinez is studded with the kind of human rights violations that showed up on the State Department's annual human rights report.

Somehow, it's state repression when China compels the Tibetan people to study the Chinese language, but it's in the American interest for the Senate to impose English as a national language.

It's wrong for Iran to deport 140,000 Afghan refugees, but it's okay to require 2 million immigrants to leave the U.S. immediately and millions more who have lived in the U.S. more than two years and less than five to exit and re-enter.

Re-enter, that is, if they haven't been convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors, which would bar them completely. Also barred would be those who committed what will be considered, after the fact, an "aggravated felony" under the proposed law--including the use of fake documents or Social Security numbers.

Keeping tabs on all this would be the Department of Homeland Security, which--thanks to an amendment sponsored by liberal hero Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.)--will verify Social Security numbers given by employees. If the authorities get it wrong, too bad--Hagel-Martinez would almost totally deny immigrants access to the courts to appeal decisions by immigration authorities.

Border Patrol agents--whose numbers under the legislation would more than double to 25,300 by 2011--would be authorized to arrest, detain and deport immigrants stopped anywhere within 100 miles of the U.S. and Canadian borders, all without a hearing before an immigration board or a judge. The world's busiest border, already heavily fortified, would see the construction of 370 miles of a triple-layered fence, along with 500 miles of barriers.

The fact that the SEIU and the National Council of La Raza can call such barbarisms a "step forward" reflects the fact that their orientation is toward the pro-business Democratic Party and inside-Washington politics, rather than the new mass movement for immigrant rights.

By contrast, a growing number of immigrant rights groups have concluded that it is better to have no immigration legislation at all than to accept Hagel-Martinez. "These trade-offs and deals are based on election-year campaigning and demands by business lobbyists, rather than on the best interests and voices of immigrant communities," the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights declared in an April 27 statement endorsed by dozens of organizations. "We say, 'No deal!"

Rejecting fake immigration "reform," though crucial, is only one item on the agenda ahead for the immigrant rights movement.

Washington's "debate" about immigration has been accompanied by stepped-up raids by immigration authorities, which are aimed at intimidating the new movement. Activists need to mobilize to defend undocumented workers who are targeted.

What's more, the politicians' anti-immigrant rhetoric is giving legitimacy to the far-right immigrant bashers and setting the stage for organizations like the racist Minutemen to grow.

No mainstream political figure can be counted on to challenge the lies and myths perpetuated about immigration and border enforcement--leaving the way uncontested for the right to gain a wider hearing. In these circumstances, the vigilantes are bound to have a larger presence in the coming months--and need to be challenged.

After a period in which the far right has been relatively marginal and inactive, the ground has been laid for organized racists to raise their heads and their profile. They need to be confronted wherever they do.

Organizations built out of the massive pro-immigrant demonstrations of the last few months can take the movement forward. Those protests showed that the potential is there to meet the challenges we face--and build a movement that can achieve genuine justice and equality for immigrants.

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