When the Senate adjourned without acting on immigration legislation on April 7, the so-called Hagel-Martinez compromise bill was left hanging. Some supporters of immigrant rights saw this as a setback.
But today many say the provisions of Hagel-Martinez, now incorporated into Sen. Arlen Specter’s bill, S 2611, will do much more harm than good if they are passed into law. The bill, which is likely to come to the Senate floor as early as May 15, should be stopped if it cannot be radically amended.
Groups such as the AFL-CIO, the National Organization for Women, the New American Opportunity Campaign, the Rights Working Group, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the ACLU and the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law are pointing out key flaws in Hagel-Martinez and calling for them to be remedied in whatever bill the Senate eventually passes.
The first problem is that the bill divides the undocumented into three groups.
People who have been here illegally for five years or more could apply for a special status that would, after six years, make it possible for them to become legal residents and therefore eventually get citizenship. However, the process is arduous and contains many pitfalls that could end up disqualifying the person.
Those who have been here more than two years but less than five would have to return to their country of origin, but then would be able to immediately come back as guest workers.
Those who have been here less than two years would have to leave. The only benefit they get is that they would not be barred from coming back if they could find some other basis on which to do so.
Second, the bill could disqualify several million of the 12 million undocumented immigrants from legalization because of a prohibition on people who have committed “document fraud,” including the use of a false Social Security number. A large proportion of undocumented workers pay taxes, but to do this they provide their employers with invented Social Security numbers, as there is no other way.
Third, the bill restricts “voluntary departure.” Up to now, undocumented immigrants not suspected of any other illegal activity have been able to sign a paper saying that they are leaving of their own accord, avoiding a full deportation proceeding. If, on the other hand, one has been deported, one is blocked from returning legally, and if one returns illegally, one could get felony jail time. So reducing voluntary departure is a serious matter.
Many analysts see the Hagel-Martinez compromise as making full legalization available to at most 3-4 million of the 12 million undocumented. The rest will probably not leave, but will stay, working under even more marginal conditions. And its repressive dimensions, many of them similar to those in the Sensenbrenner bill, HR 4437, will create huge problems not just for the undocumented but for thousands of legal permanent residents and asylum seekers as well.
Thus, immigrant rights advocates are concluding, if Hagel-Martinez cannot be radically changed, a total impasse on comprehensive immigration reform legislation would be preferable.
This does not mean that nothing can be accomplished, however. For example, Rep. Jose Serrano’s bill, HR 5035, which would restore to immigration judges their right to stop deportation of parents with U.S. citizen children, would help many families and should be fought for.
The key problem is that the Republican Party controls the White House and Congress. The moneyed interests to whom President Bush is closest mainly want a guest worker bill as well as repressive measures to keep workers subservient. However, the most fired-up social base of the GOP consists of extremists who want to see all undocumented immigrants deported without exception and the border shut down tight.
In the short term there is no readily visible opening in this dismal panorama for advancing more pro-immigrant, pro-worker comprehensive legislation. But the divisions within the Republican ranks may produce a stalemate, which may be the best result that can be hoped for at this time.
The struggle for pro-immigrant, pro-worker immigration reform will continue by many means, but without a change in Congress in November, it is going to be very difficult. For this reason, immigrant rights activists all over the country are stepping up promotion of voter registration so that the energy seen in the recent marches can have an electoral impact in November.
In the coming week or weeks the most important task will be to pressure senators to positively amend S 2611 or to stop it, and to build a pro-immigrant constituency with labor and others in citizenship, voter registration, education and voter turnout campaigns.