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Compromising on justice for immigrants

June 8, 2007 | Page 3

LEE SUSTAR examines the bipartisan immigration bill up for debate in the Senate.

IF JUST a single one of the 12 to 14 million undocumented workers in the U.S. could manage to become a citizen someday under a new immigration law, you can bet that bottom-tier Republican presidential candidates and assorted congressional xenophobes would still be screaming "Amnesty!"

A bipartisan immigration bill, supported by both the Bush White House and leading Democrats like Ted Kennedy, is up for debate in the Senate.

In the coming days, senators of both parties will be tugging on the wishbone of the bill, hoping to get a big enough piece to satisfy their constituents, while still appeasing Corporate America's appetite for a steady stream of low-wage guest workers, with virtually no labor or civil rights.

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THE REPUBLICANS, as usual, are trying to square their role as the party of big business with the need to play up to the hard right, which is clinging to immigration as one issue that could avert a total electoral meltdown in 2008.

"President Bush's advocacy of an overhaul of immigration law and his attacks on critics of the plan are provoking a backlash from conservatives who form the bulwark of his remaining support, splintering his base and laying bare divisions within a party whose unity has been the envy of Democrats," the New York Times reported.

Sen. John McCain, a prominent backer of the pro-corporate, enforcement-oriented bill, has had to put up with repeated attacks from rival presidential candidates.

For their part, Democrats are also trying to work both sides of the street. They want to prove themselves worthy of the continued corporate donations that have surged to party candidates as CEOs seek an alternative to the radioactive Bush White House and the increasingly desperate congressional Republicans.

Thus, the Senate proposal does away with what some immigrant advocacy groups saw as the positive elements of the STRIVE Act introduced in the House earlier this year--mainly, the (very long and restricted) path to citizenship and ability to sponsor family members to live in the U.S. as well.

Instead, the Senate "compromise" creates a permanent subclass of temporary workers.

In remarks prepared for a speech on the Senate floor, Kennedy tried to justify his concession to the right. "This bill accomplishes our core goals," he said. "It provides tough new enforcement at the border and the work site. It allows a realistic path to family security and eventual citizenship for millions of men, women and children already here. And it provides a new system for allocating visas in the future that stresses family reunion and national economic needs."

Kennedy is playing the same role on immigration as he did for the now-notorious No Child Left Behind Act and the Medicare prescription drug benefit plan--orchestrating negotiations, working closely with the White House and providing political cover for Bush, until renouncing the final result.

A similar process took place last year. A proposal sponsored by McCain and Kennedy that put forward somewhat broad legalization for the undocumented and a guest-worker program then morphed into the Hagel-Martinez bill, which would have divided the undocumented into three tiers, excluded at least 2 million undocumented immigrants entirely, ratcheted up enforcement and required workers to "touch back" to their country of origin in order to apply for legal status--a requirement that that many in the immigrant rights movements refer to as "self-deportation."

Senate Republicans, then in control of the chamber, made sure to cross-pollinate their legislation with the notorious Sensenbrenner bill, named for the Wisconsin member of the House whose own proposal would have turned all the undocumented into felons.

Now comes this year's version of a Senate immigration compromise--no names attached to this one, please--which makes Hagel-Martinez appear as humane by comparison.

This time, the Senate sponsors have taken on board Bush's proposals for renewable "Z" visas, but applicants would have to wait a year between renewals. A stream of 400,000 to 600,000 guest workers is also part of the deal.

The proposal eliminates the family reunification process that has been the core of U.S. immigration policy for decades. In its place is a points system based on education and skill, a move aimed to please employers.

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WHATEVER THE outcome of the Senate debate, it isn't at all clear that the House will be able to come up a version close enough to generate a final bill.

Adding to the obstacles is the fact that Democrats want 70 Republican votes in the House for any immigration bill--that is, to serve as political human shields when the immigrant-bashers attack the Democrats in the 2008 election campaign.

So after a brief interlude when it appeared that the legalization-plus-enforcement formula of the STRIVE Act would divide the immigrant rights movement, the effort by Kennedy and Co. to appease the right has alienated almost every advocacy group.

For example, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) opposed the Senate deal because of its guest-worker program, restrictions on family unity and a merit-based ranking method to determine eligibility.

"The Senate compromise is a radical departure from our current system that is rooted in family and employment-based immigration," said LULAC National President Rosa Rosales.

"If enacted, the temporary worker provision alone would create a new underclass of easily exploited workers who would be forbidden from realizing the American Dream. This bill will dehumanize workers, shortchange employers and lead to widespread undocumented immigration as many workers inevitably overstay their visas rather than return home."

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chávez-Thompson made similar points: "The framework of the Senate compromise represents a radical departure from long-standing U.S. immigration policy, which has always favored the reunification of families, and has protected workers by limiting the size and the scope of guest-worker programs, and restricting their applicability to seasonal or temporary work needs.

"By contrast, the Senate compromise includes a massive guest-worker program that would allow employers to import hundreds of thousands temporary workers every year to perform permanent jobs throughout the economy.

"[T]he supposed "path to legalization" in the Senate compromise will exclude millions of workers and thus ensure that America will have two classes of workers, only one of which can exercise workplace rights.

"As long as this two-tiered system exists, all workers will suffer because employers will have available a ready pool of labor that they can exploit to drive down wages, benefits, health and safety protections and other workplace standards."

Even the most conservative and corporate-oriented group in the immigrant rights movement, the National Council of La Raza, acknowledged "a number of serious concerns" about the bill that the group said it would try to address as it moves through Congress.

There's always the possibility that business will twist enough arms to get an immigration bill through Congress in the next few weeks. The immigrant rights movement has to be prepared to mobilize to stop it.

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