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Injustice dressed up as reform

May 25, 2007 | Page 2

LIKE LAST year's Hagel-Martinez proposal, the immigration reform "compromise" in the U.S. Senate may collapse before it has a serious chance of becoming law.

But if it does, this time it will be as much because of opposition from immigrant rights supporters on the left as the immigrant bashers on the right.

This year's bill combines proposals from the Bush White House with elements of last year's legislation, which was initially sponsored by Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). Those two are again at the center of the deal-making. But while the bill is packaged as a result of liberal-conservative cooperation, it concedes to the right on every major point.

From the standpoint of immigrant rights activists, the best that can be said of the bill is that its proposed "Z" visas--a Bush administration idea--offer the possibility of legalization to 12 to 14 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today. The fine print, however, shows how out of reach this possibility actually is.

Immigrants would have to pay a $5,000 fine and a $1,500 processing fee--huge sums for low-wage workers. They would also have to show a "clean work record"--no easy task for those who have toiled in the underground economy--and pass a criminal background check.

The Z visas would be renewable indefinitely. But the only way visa holders could apply for citizenship is if the head of the household returns to their home country to apply. This is the notorious "touch-back" provision included in other legislative proposals, designed to make citizenship expensive and open the door to instant deportations for anyone the government deems undesirable.

Citizenship is no sure thing, either. The measure would continue to restrict the numbers who can apply each year, forcing Z visa holders to "get in line" behind those already backlogged, meaning an eight-year wait before the years-long process even begins. As a result, the status of Z visa holders will be tentative, making them more vulnerable to employers and the ever-growing law enforcement apparatus that targets immigrants.

The proposal gets worse from there--a lot worse. The bill dispenses with family reunification measures that have long been a cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy, replacing it with a points-based system in which workers whose skills are in demand would get preference over low-wage workers.

The points system is intended to help Corporate America cherry-pick the best-educated immigrants to take highly skilled jobs. Members of the immediate family would still get preference for visas; siblings and others would not.

The bill also contains a guest-worker provision that would allow between 400,000 and 600,000 people to enter the U.S. each year to seek employment. The two-year visas would be renewable three times, but only after workers return to their home country for a full year between each stint in the U.S.

This measure would create an underclass of workers with no chance of ever achieving citizenship, just the sort of vulnerable employee that abusive bosses want. And does anyone seriously believe that, for example, hotel workers from Thailand, already indebted to a labor broker for a guest-worker visa, could afford to return to their home country repeatedly in this way?

On top of all this are atrocious new enforcement mechanisms: the hiring of 18,000 new Border Patrol agents, four drone aircraft, 370 miles of fences, 200 miles of vehicle barriers and 70 radar and camera towers.

Funding would be provided to detain 27,500 undocumented immigrants per day, while a new computerized employee verification system would use Social Security data and other information to monitor the status of not just immigrants, but every worker in the U.S. During the Cold War, the U.S. denounced such measures as typical of totalitarianism in the USSR. Today, though, the gulag and Big Brother surveillance are as American as apple pie.

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OF COURSE, even these terrible restrictions aren't enough for the anti-immigrant right. The media have focused on conservative Republicans who, predictably, are screaming that the Bush-backed bill provides "amnesty" for immigrants.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a leading Republican presidential contender, led the complaints about the bill at a recent candidates' debate in South Carolina--echoing the rhetoric of leading immigrant-basher Rep. Tom Tancredo, another GOP presidential hopeful.

Criticism from Democrats is more measured. Democratic presidential contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are promising amendments to the bill to curb some--but by no means all--of its worst features. And it was Ted Kennedy, the supposed liberal lion of the Senate, who brokered this awful bill.

Nevertheless, the fact that some Democrats are criticizing the legislation from the left is a departure from last year.

What's more, among the mainstream Washington-oriented immigrant rights organizations, such as the National Council of La Raza, there is widespread opposition to the bipartisan deal--a major step forward from last year when most supported Hagel-Martinez as at least an acceptable framework for immigration reform.

This year's larger-than-expected protests on May Day are evidence that the immigrant rights movement hasn't disappeared--and that the potential exists to mobilize at the grassroots for a just immigration policy.

The bipartisan Senate bill should be opposed by anyone who cares about justice for immigrants. The New York Times, though a champion of business-oriented immigration reform, got it right when it editorialized that the price of the legislation was a "radical repudiation of generations of immigration policy, the weakening of families and the creation of a system of modern peonage within our borders."

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