May Day demonstrations across the country accelerated grassroots pressure to make legalization and social justice, instead of punitive and profit-oriented measures, the priority in the public and congressional debates on immigrant rights. They also protested the Bush administration’s stepped up repressive raids and increased immigrant-baiting by far-right groups.

The focus on immigrant rights this May Day, in addition to commemorating and building global labor solidarity, comes as Congress prepares to formally take up the issue of comprehensive immigration legislation. Different political forces with different priorities, — on legalization, temporary worker programs and increased border and interior enforcement — believe that any comprehensive measure, whatever the character of its content, must be passed before the August congressional recess. They reason that by Labor Day, the pressures of the 2008 presidential and congressional elections will make a bipartisan consensus impossible.

To date, there are two major proposals on the national scene.

President Bush and right-wing Republican senators have issued a plan prioritizing enforcement and corporate-friendly guest worker programs with limited legalization rights for undocumented workers. It would make business needs rather than family reunification the priority.

A bipartisan bill, HR 1645, prepared by Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has a much more liberal but still problematic legalization program, a guest worker program with some worker rights and less harsh but increased enforcement measures.

The Bush proposal, which has no legislative language yet, is clearly designed to help block or water down immigrant-friendly provisions. It specifies five-figure fines and fees per applicant for legalization. The stepped up vicious raids aim to weaken resistance to the right-wing direction of the administration’s immigration policy.

The Gutierrez-Flake bill aims at ensuring due process legalization for most undocumented workers, with concessions as well to the right wing. A large section of the immigrant rights movement has welcomed the bill, but many of them sharply question the extent of concessions, and many grassroots groups and immigrant rights advocates judge it unacceptable in its current form. The AFL-CIO has opposed temporary worker programs in principle and called for significant improvements over many provisions included in HR 1645.

The devil, as is said, is in the details, and the details will start being concretized in the “mark-up” processes of the House and Senate subcommittees on immigration. “Mark-up” is the process of developing specific legislative language that is submitted for full committee and then floor debate. In the Republican-dominated previous Congress, the House subcommittee mark-up took less than a day, while the Senate subcommittee took many weeks.

The Democratic-led House and Senate leadership have called for fuller debate and oversight in the legislative process. If this is to apply to comprehensive immigration legislation that could pass before August, subcommittee review and mark-up should begin in May.

In the Senate no strong comprehensive bill has yet surfaced. The narrow Democratic majority, the 60 percent requirement to allow debate and the Bush proposal make it more susceptible to right-wing pressures.

Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) chairs the immigration subcommittee and has been pushing hard for passing a comprehensive bill by the summer. Previously he has said he would like something similar to what passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, which is more limiting than the Gutierrez-Flake bill.

The House subcommittee on immigration is where pressure for immigrant rights can have the most impact. It has 10 liberal Democrats and seven conservative Republicans. Subcommittee chair Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) has indicated that the mark-up process will be open to all bills and proposals by House members. This means the Gutierrez-Flake bill will be only part of the process. However the bill’s impressive list of 53 sponsors, including nine Republicans, and importantly four of the 10 Democrats on the subcommittee, will make sure its provisions are heard. All of the subcommittee Democrats are open to pro-labor and immigrant rights amendments.

Depending on public pressure, the subcommittee could make major progressive improvements on Gutierrez-Flake and/or lay the basis for blocking an unacceptable comprehensive bill. The subcommittee and others could also hold hearings on profiling and other misconduct in workplace and neighborhood raids.

So, in this period, grassroots pressure for immigrant/labor-rights can have a big impact.

Rosalío Muñoz (rosalio_munoz@sbcglobal.net) is organizer for the Southern California district of the Communist Party USA.

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