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Will Washington deliver justice for immigrants?

April 27, 2007 | Page 2

IF IT were up to the public at large, the estimated 11 to 13 million undocumented immigrants in this country would be eligible to apply for citizenship. That's the conclusion of a new Gallup poll, which found 78 percent of people in favor of legalization.

But with the politicians in charge, the options offered are very different.

First, there's George W. Bush's proposal to force a small minority to pay a $10,000 fine to become eligible for citizenship--while the rest are confined to permanent second-class status as guest workers on proposed "Z" visas.

Maintaining the three-year Z visa would require payment of a $3,500 fine--and another $3,500 for each renewal, thereby putting the federal government in the role of the labor brokers who extort payments from guest workers in order to get them jobs in the U.S.

Family reunification would be expressly forbidden under the Bush plan, forcing millions who work to support their families to abandon hope of ever living with them again. Moreover, the guest-worker program wouldn't begin until after 570 miles of fence is installed on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In light of Bush's plan, many immigrants and their advocates have looked to legislation co-sponsored by Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a conservative, and Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), a liberal with a reputation as an advocate for immigrant rights.

Known as the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy (STRIVE) Act, the Gutiérrez-Flake bill may look good at first glance. It seems to provide the long-promised "path to citizenship" for the undocumented.

Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that the STRIVE Act would postpone citizenship for at least 15 years--if, that is, the undocumented can jump over a series hurdles and pay significant fines.

And like the Bush plan, the STRIVE Act legalization procedures would have to follow the enactment of enforcement measures. STRIVE even incorporates repressive measures from last year's draconian HR 4437 proposal, known as the Sensenbrenner bill after its House sponsor.

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NEVERTHELESS, THE STRIVE Act has divided the immigrant rights movement. Some organizations argue that, for all its flaws, STRIVE would at least provide relief from raids and deportations, and would allow eventual citizenship.

The fine print of STRIVE, though, reveals the severe limitations of the citizenship process. For example, those aged 21 to 65 who apply under STRIVE would have to leave the U.S. and "touch back" to their home countries within 90 days--which would almost certainly lead to de facto deportations as the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents bar "undesirables" from re-entry.

What's more, they would have to pay a minimum $2,000 fine and show continuous residence and employment in the U.S. since June 1, 2006--eliminating those who've traveled across borders to visit their families.

Another clause in the bill would bar from legalization anyone who's used fraudulent documents--which is true for an estimated three-quarters of undocumented immigrants. While an immigration official could override the use of such documents as a disqualifying factor, it would be up to his or her discretion. Thus, individual immigration officials--many of them notoriously arbitrary and racist--would have final say over who's eligible for legalization.

Those with convictions for a felony or three misdemeanors--no matter how petty--would also be ineligible. Plus, family reunification wouldn't be substantially improved by the bill. "The STRIVE Act fails to address how detention and deportation split families and complicate the immigration process," the American Friends Service Committee said in a statement.

Even after these hurdles are cleared, the undocumented would be placed in immigration purgatory--"conditional non-immigrant status," which involves a six-year waiting period, during which time they would have to remain employed, learn English and get in the "back of the line" behind millions of other petitions for citizenship. Total estimated waiting time: 15 years.

This would give employers enormous leverage over workers, who would be reluctant to risk losing their jobs by standing up for better pay and conditions or organizing a union.

Meanwhile, bosses would benefit from another category of unfree labor--STRIVE would initially allow 400,000, then 600,000, guest workers to enter the U.S. each year. This would add to the abuses detailed in the recent Southern Poverty Law Center report on current guest-worker programs--appropriately titled "Close to Slavery."

Then there are the STRIVE Act's enforcement provisions. Those who fail to qualify for STRIVE's legalization process would get the Sensenbrenner treatment--that is, treated as criminals.

STRIVE would further militarize the border and empower local law enforcement to act as virtual ICE agents, turning traffic stops into the first step in deportation proceedings. Border state police would be further involved in immigrant hunts along the highways, across the desert, and in urban and rural areas where immigrant populations are concentrated. Added to this would be a Big Brother-style national identity tracking system--a measure strongly criticized by the ACLU.

"Congress continues to view immigrants through a national security and disposable worker lens, proposing harsh enforcement while it moves away from permanent, family-based immigration toward temporary worker programs," wrote Lillian Galedo on the New America Media Web site. "For the aspiring millions who spoke out for immigrant rights last year, this is not the response we wanted."

STRIVE does, however, meet the requirements of business for a steady supply of cheap labor without equal rights with other workers--as well as relief from ICE raids that disrupt business. That's why STRIVE has been endorsed by the employer-dominated National Immigration Forum (NIF).

Yet many organizations historically committed to immigrant rights also support STRIVE.

Grouped in the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR), the list includes not only NIF, but also UNITE HERE, the Service Employees International Union, the United Farm Workers, the National Council of La Raza, the Center for Community Change and organizations like the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

The CCIR objects to certain aspects of STRIVE, such as the requirement to "touch back" to immigrants' home countries. But Clarissa Martínez, a spokesperson for the coalition, said the group endorsed STRIVE because "the bill presents the right architecture to deal with this issue."

The well-funded, influential groups in the CCIR have put a damper on efforts to organize immigrant rights protests in recent weeks, including those planned for May Day. Nevertheless, grassroots activists have stepped up to the challenge, exposing the fatal flaws in the STRIVE Act and pressing for broad legalization without repression.

"We call this 'Sensenbrenner Lite,'" Alexis Mazon, a member of the Tucson, Ariz.-based Coalicion de Derechos Humanos (Coalition for Human Rights) and an activist in the Tucson May 1 Coalition, told a reporter. "A lot of the provisions that were in HR 4437 are in HR 1645 [the STRIVE Act]...It is a proposal intended to criminalize the entire immigrant population."

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THE STRIVE Act isn't a vehicle for a just immigration reform law. On the contrary, it's an attempt to corral immigrant rights supporters into backing a corporate drive to gain a vulnerable group of low-wage workers who have--at best--limited rights.

We've been here before. After last spring's massive demonstrations for immigrant rights--culminating in millions marching on May Day--the anti-immigrant right's plans of pushing through the Sensenbrenner bill were crushed. It was a powerful display of the importance of protest to stop the right wing's attacks.

But Senate legislation authorizing a guest-worker program and boosting enforcement was put forward as an "alternative." A substantial section of the immigrant rights movement also opposed the Senate bill because of its guest-worker program and enforcement measures.

Rather than choose between Bush's harsh measures and the STRIVE Act's highly limited legalization process and guest-worker program, the immigrant rights movement should say no to both--and continue organizing to demand immigration legislation with equality and the right to seek citizenship for all.

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