Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Civil and immigrants rights groups voice concern over Senate immigration bill

As the Senate's Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (S.2611) moves on to the next phase, a Conference Committee with the House to reconcile the vast differences between it and the bill passed last December by the House (HR4437), various civil and immigrant's rights organizations have begun to weigh in on the legislation that finally emerged after the Senate's long deliberative process.

Many groups, while welcoming some aspects of the compromise legislation, find key elements of it troubling, and worry about even further changes to be made during conference.

John Sweeny, AFL-CIO President released a statement stating his organization was "deeply disappointed that the Senate missed a historic opportunity to fix our nation's broken immigration system in a just, meaningful and comprehensive way." Adding that, "We strongly believe that America deserves an immigration system that protects all workers within our borders and at same time guarantees the safety of our nation without compromising our fundamental civil rights and liberties"

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Instead of raising working standards for all workers by providing a fair path to citizenship to the 12 million undocumented workers currently living in our communities, the Senate adopted the framework of the fatally flawed Martinez-Hagel compromise, which creates an undemocratic, unjust and unworkable three-tiered society that denigrates and marginalize millions of immigrant families. That three-tiered approach creates a caste society in which millions of hard-working immigrants are driven further into the shadows of American society, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.

We are also disappointed that the Senate adopted the greedy corporate model of addressing our nations' future needs for workers--guestworker programs-- instead of crafting a mechanism to ensure that future foreign workers come into the US with full rights and as full social partners.

Elaborating further in a Op-ed on the Hufington Post, Sweeny went on to add that the proposed guest worker program "would be little more than an opportunity for employers to turn hundreds of thousands of permanent jobs in the United States into temporary jobs filled by exploitable immigrants who are paid low wages and receive few if any benefits. As during the Bracero era, today's guest workers remain legally tied to the employers that recruited them, leaving them naturally vulnerable to abuse."

Karen K. Narasaki, President and Executive Director, Asian American Justice Center called the bill "seriously flawed" adding that, "It contains the basic elements of comprehensive immigration reform, but its success may be undermined by the potentially unworkable three-tiered legalization program, as well as the harsh anti-immigrant and anti-Due Process provisions imported from the House bill, H.R. 4437."

While praising certain aspects of the bill, such as its provisions for family reunification Narasaki added that the earned legalization program would help an estimated 1.5 million undocumented Asian immigrants "However, the program may be unworkable because it arbitrarily divides up the undocumented population into three categories. It would leave almost 2 million of the 12 million undocumented immigrants out of the legalization program entirely and impose very tough, and in some cases, excessive requirements on another 2.6 million."

The nation's largest civil and human rights coalition, The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), issued a statement that characterized the Senate bill as taking "the first step toward comprehensive reform but still poses serious threats to civil rights and American freedoms. Though the Senate bill does set out a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants who now make significant contributions to our society, it is a convoluted road littered with problems."

Neither the House nor the Senate bill provides adequate response to the nation's immigration problem. While the Senate bill is far better and more comprehensive than the House proposal, both bills would:

  • Overturn Supreme Court decisions that prohibit the indefinite detention of immigrants;

  • Expand government authority to remove immigrants - even asylum seekers - without judicial process;,/li>

  • Make minor offenses "aggravated felonies," automatically triggering mandatory detention and deportation proceedings;

  • Require local police to enforce complicated laws that not only siphon away resources for community policing efforts dealing with real and violent crime, but also undermine law and order itself with a proliferation of arbitrary and contradictory enforcement; and

  • Fail to adequately protect immigrants or citizens under our nation's labor laws.

Unless these formidable and very troubling concerns are addressed in the House-Senate conference, the civil rights community has little choice but to oppose legislation that -- despite its accomplishments - will potentially damage the very spirit of American democracy.

A spokesman for The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the nation's leading Latino legal organization also voiced concerns over the bill. "The legalization program approved by the Senate erects significant obstacles for many immigrants, and would leave many others out altogether. John Trasviña, MALDEF Interim President and General Counsel, cautioned, "The Senate bill also includes unacceptable provisions such as the Inhofe Amendment which would make it harder for the government to communicate with citizens and non-citizens who are not yet proficient in English and fails to address the need for more adult English classes that immigrants desire. In addition, it threatens to make more people ineligible for legal status and undermines the value of the legalization program."

Janet Murguía, President and CEO of The National Council of La Raza, (NCLR), the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the U.S., praised the bill but also voiced concern.

She outlined a variety of concerns with certain aspects of the bill, including the criminalization of immigrants, the workability of a legalization program that places immigrants in separate categories, the curtailment of due process rights, and the engagement of the National Guard and other problematic strategies at the U.S.-Mexico border. In addition, she outlined deep concerns about the addition of an "English-only" provision to the bill which, in the name of establishing a "national language," does nothing to help immigrants learn English but may well place obstacles before key agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in communicating vital public health and safety information in other languages.

"These are not small matters," said Murguía, "and their presence in final legislation would threaten our ability to support a final bill. We will be insisting that conferees address these concerns, and we will not be afraid to vigorously oppose the result if we believe it is unworkable," she continued.

"While we know that House/Senate conference committee deliberations will be challenging, a conference committee's job is to come up with a bill that works and that can pass both bodies," Murguía said. Pointing out that the only path for such a bill is bipartisan, Murguía continued, "It would be a mistake to attempt to appease the hard-liners who have taken a firm anti-immigrant stand. The only path to a successful result is a bipartisan, comprehensive, workable bill."

"At the end of the day, the Latino community and the rest of the country want effective immigration reform that brings order and fairness to our system. Moving this bill through the Senate is an essential step toward accomplishing this critical goal," continued Murguía. "I am confident that our community will continue to be mobilized and focused on this important policy debate. Like many other Americans, we will demand a resolution - not just any result - but a real solution which honors our tradition as a nation of immigrants and reforms the laws with effectiveness, fairness, and respect."

Many of the groups ultimately view the bill much in the same way as the American Immigration Lawyers Assoc. who characterize the bill as "plainly (having) serious defects, including several onerous enforcement measures such as mandatory detention, expanded expedited removal, expanded aggravated felony definitions and other criminal grounds of removal, and potential bars to any new legalization programs for those who used fraudulent documents.", yet advise that "conflating the Senate bill with the House Sensenbrenner bill, as many groups continue to do, is not helpful. Senate bill S. 2611 is still serving an important purpose as a bulwark defending us from enactment of H.R. 4437."

The AILA further advises that:

Whether (the) positive measures are outweighed by the provisions of concern is an issue over which reasonable minds can and do disagree. AILA has not yet taken a formal position on how that balancing calculus computes, and for good reason: we believe it is unnecessary and premature. Our strategy in the Senate was to produce the most generous, most comprehensive bill possible to serve as a counterweight to H.R. 4437 and to serve as a precedent for the future. While the Senate bill that passed is imperfect, it nonetheless exceeded our expectations in terms of the benefits it offers.

We believe that passage of S. 2611 puts opponents of H.R. 4437 in a significantly stronger position than we would have been if the bill had stalled in the Senate. We continue to believe that the House will refuse to pass any conference report that contains a legalization component; the Senate has now committed itself to several broad legalization measures. Our goal is to ensure that the Senate stays strong and committed to its approach, a goal we cannot achieve by attacking their bill.

There will be a great deal of discussion in the coming weeks as the House and Senate decide whether there is any possibility to "conference" their two wildly diverging bills. Whatever happens, we must keep the pressure up in support of the Senate holding firm to the important positive provisions in the Senate bill, and to insist that the Senate reject any conference product that eviscerates the positive elements listed above. Meanwhile, we will also continue to work to improve the Senate bill, and especially to insist that any provisions that undermine the legalization programs be fixed.

If the Senate holds firm, then the likely result this year will be a stalemate between the House and the Senate.

Let's not lose sight of one additional important reality: the House is going to continue pressing for strong enforcement-only measures that undermine due process for noncitizens. H.R. 4437 simply represents the most significant looming threat. We can be certain to see pieces of H.R. 4437 offered up as amendments to moving appropriations vehicles and one of our best weapons against those encroachments will be the Senate's rejection of an enforcement-only or enforcement-first approach.

How each of these groups proceeds is yet to be seen, but it's safe to say that the Senators on the Conference Committee will have more to deal with than just trying to placate their hostile House brethren. The lobbying efforts on behalf of both immigrants and labor appear to be ready to keep up the pressure to ensure that a bill more to their liking emerges out of conference.

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