Gotham Gazette

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Immigration Debate Heats Up in Senate

The long-awaited immigration debate in the U.S. Senate is finally about to get underway. The next few weeks in the Senate will be crucial in determining how this country will treat the 11 million undocumented immigrants who have come in search of the American Dream but who lack legal status to live and work here. In the end, we’ll find out if we are capable of reforming the failing immigration system to manage migration flows better, and if we can do it in a way that treats immigrants fairly.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to begin working on sweeping immigration reform legislation in early March. Whatever bill emerges from that committee will then go to the full Senate for consideration and eventually a vote, most likely in April.

The stakes could not be higher for New York City, where an estimated half a million city residents live and work without legal immigration status, and many more are affected by family separation and immigration processing backlogs.

The Bush Plan

In order to understand the context of the Senate debate, it’s necessary to look at some of the major proposals on the table. In January 2004, President George W. Bush made the first of several speeches in which he called for stepped-up enforcement combined with a guestworker program that would offer temporary work visas to undocumented workers and workers from abroad.

The president’s plan pleased just about no one, however. Immigrant advocates criticized his guestworker plan because it would kick workers out of the country after six years and offer them no path to permanent residence and citizenship. Anti-immigrant restrictionists, meanwhile, labeled even this very limited guestworker program an “amnesty” that rewards lawbreakers.

The House Bill

In a few whirlwind days near the end of the session in December, House Republicans, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, railroaded through to passage the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act (H.R. 4437).

The House bill (if approved by the Senate as well) would ratchet up border and interior enforcement and create severe new penalties for immigration violations. Unlawful presence –- when someone’s visa status expires, for example -– would no longer merely be a civil violation but would become a felony crime. Anyone who “assists” or “encourages” an undocumented immigrant to remain in the country could be sent to prison for five years –- a provision that has social workers, advocates, and others wondering if their work with undocumented populations is going to land them in jail if H.R. 4437 becomes law.

The enforcement-only approach taken by the House bill makes no attempt to deal realistically with the millions of undocumented immigrants in this country, other than to criminalize, arrest and deport as many of them as possible. Immigrant advocates insist that a more comprehensive and solution-oriented approach to fixing the broken U.S. immigration system is needed, and they have been riding on the hope that more moderate voices in the Senate will prevail.

The Senate Debate

A number of different immigration bills, all claiming to be comprehensive, have been introduced in the Senate, including a bill by Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy, and one by Senators John Cornyn and Jon Kyle. On February 23rd, however, Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, released his “Chairman’s Mark,” a draft bill that ends the speculation about which bill would serve as the starting point for consideration of immigration reform in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senator Specter’s draft bill attempts to cobble together a compromise from various existing proposals. The bill, to immigrant advocates’ dismay, incorporates many of the severe enforcement provisions from the Sensenbrenner House bill. Like the Bush plan, it would create a guestworker program to allow needed workers from abroad to spend up to six years working in the United States before being forced to return to their country of origin.

The bill’s treatment of undocumented workers constitutes perhaps the most strained compromise of all. Specter’s bill would grant temporary visas of indefinite duration to undocumented immigrants; the visa status would not expire after a certain number of years. However, there would be no specific path to permanent residence and citizenship for these workers. This provision basically creates millions of workers stuck in a permanent second-class status.

What -- And Who's -- Missing

Immigrant communities are protesting the Chairman’s Mark as falling far short of the basic principles needed for effective and realistic immigration reform, which include:

  • legalization and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already here
  • reunification of families separated by restrictive laws and bureaucratic delays
  • a temporary-worker program with full labor rights and a path to citizenship
  • smart, targeted enforcement

These compelling principles need more champions in Congress if we are to achieve a humane and workable immigration system. New York’s senators have been largely missing from the immigration debate so far. But Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton could make a crucial difference in the weeks ahead in avoiding a rush to a compromise position drawn from deeply flawed proposals.

Norman Eng, an immigration attorney, is communications and research coordinator with The New York Immigration Coalition. For more immigrant news, see The Citizen. 


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