Immigrant rights struggle continues, in and out of Congress

The massive immigrant rights protests last year stopped Senate passage of the repressive HR 4437. But because the Republicans controlled Congress, it was not possible to pass legislation for legalization of the 12 million undocumented. Now that the Republicans have lost their majority, what does this bode for the immigrant rights movement?

The good news last week was that the Employee Free Choice Act, designed to make it easier for workers to get union representation through a card-check system, passed the House of Representatives.

Seeing they were going to lose on this bill, the anti-labor Republican leadership tried to undermine it. They introduced a motion aimed at modifying the bill to require unions to confirm that every card submitted is for a U.S. citizen or legal resident, and none are for undocumented workers. The motion was defeated, 225 to 202. The bill then passed 241-185, on largely party-line votes.

This maneuver demonstrates how the Republican leadership seeks to use the issue of undocumented immigration to divide and undermine the U.S. working class. Not only would it have excluded some of the most vulnerable workers from union representation, it would also have forced unions to act as immigration agents. Undocumented workers would have avoided card-check campaigns, making it even more difficult to unionize industries with many foreign-born workers, and making the employment of such workers even more attractive to union-busting employers.

It is one more example of how immigrants are scapegoated to distract from the real issues. Instead of dealing with the complete breakdown of the health care financing system, right-wing Republicans blame the crisis on Mexican immigrants without health insurance. And instead of dealing with the real causes of crime, they smear immigrants as criminals.

The Democrats have a sufficient majority to stop more extreme anti-immigrant legislation, but it is not assured that pro-immigrant legislation can get enough bipartisan support to survive a presidential veto. The Democrats have a one-vote majority in the Senate, and a 31-vote majority in the House. But to stop a GOP filibuster in the Senate they need 60 votes, and to override a Bush veto they need 67 votes in the Senate and 290 in the House.

So the fight is still uphill. In the coming weeks, bipartisan legislation similar to last year’s McCain-Kennedy bill will be submitted. This will include an attempt to get legalization for the undocumented, but also concessions to get the needed Republican votes for passage. There is a danger that too many concessions, including difficult obstacles to legalization, a guest worker program prone to abuse and new repressive measures, will be added. Monitoring and lobbying will be needed.

Nobody should be fooled into thinking that President Bush favors humane immigration reform. Last week Attorney General Gonzales strongly defended the government’s stepped-up immigration raids. In the Senate Judiciary Committee’s first hearing on immigration this year, Commerce Secretary Gutierrez and Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff made it clear that the administration’s priorities are to crack down on undocumented workers while creating a guest worker program to provide cheap labor for corporate employers. None of them mentioned legalizing the undocumented and giving them a chance for citizenship.

Though comprehensive reform may be problematic, some individual legislation may have a better chance, if backed by mass pressure on Republicans and Democrats alike.

Rep. Jose Serrano’s Child Citizen Protection Bill, now re-numbered HR 1176, would restore the ability of immigration judges to stop deportation of noncitizens in the interests of their U.S. citizen children. A bill may be introduced to repeal the 2005 Real ID Act, which, under the pretext of stopping terrorists from getting driver’s licenses, has state legislatures and motor vehicle departments in full rebellion against the impossibility of implementing it by 2008 as required. The DREAM Act, to make college education available for undocumented students, has been re-introduced.

All these need to be integrated into an all-people’s strategy linking to other issues and garnering the support of other constituencies.

The call is going out from unions, churches and community groups to hit the streets again this spring, starting with a March 10 march and rally in Chicago. Plans for late April and May 1 include mass actions calling for a moratorium on deportations and for pro-worker immigration reform. Many religious organizations are joining a movement to provide sanctuary for undocumented families. It is an all-people’s movement in the making.