Battle over immigration reform starts in Congress

keep families together

This past week, the battle over immigration reform intensified in Congress as the Senate Judiciary Committee began the consideration of 300 amendments to the new immigration bill, and as the House moved toward crafting its own legislation. Meanwhile, the action continued outside Congress as the immigrants' rights movement and its labor and other allies kept up the pressure.

The "markup" process in the Judiciary Committee involves, so far, dealing with numerous major amendments offered by Republican senators, and a few progressive ones offered by Democrats. The overall direction of many amendments is to make it harder to pass progressive legislation, and to drag out the process of implementation. Of the 300 amendments offered, two-thirds are by Republicans, and most of these would take away the progressive elements of S 744. Anti-immigrant forces in and out of Congress are emphasizing the issues of "sealing the border" and denying benefits to immigrants in the process of being legalized.

One tactic, however, has blown up in the anti-immigrant crowd's face. A report from the Heritage Foundation, which purported to show that legalizing the undocumented would cost trillions of dollars, has been shot down in flames, and it has been revealed that one of the main authors had written before that poor immigrants have low I.Q.s.

In the first day of the mark-up session, May 9, the senators disposed of 32 amendments, including some vicious things. Among them was an amendment offered by Senate Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., that would forbid the government from granting RPI status (Registered Provisional Immigrants) to any undocumented immigrant until the government has maintained effective control of the border for at least 6 months, including the apprehension of 90 percent of all would be border crossers, and to apply border security strategies to all border areas. The wording of this amendment creates an impossible goal to be met before anybody can be legalized; fortunately it was defeated by 6-2 vote. A less drastic version was passed, that does not delay the original legalization process. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, with a similar purpose was defeated 5-13. (On May 14, the Council on Foreign Relations released a study on border security, casting doubt on the effectiveness of enforcement-only approach.)

Another amendment offered by Sessions requiring completion of 700 miles of "reinforced, double layer fencing" on the U.S.-Mexico border before legalization can proceed; this was defeated 6- 12 also. There was bipartisan support for some less draconian border control measures.

Some progressive amendments have been introduced. One, by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, would require immigration officials who apprehend possible undocumented immigrants at the border to determine whether deporting the individual would harm the interests of a minor child, negatively affect family unity or otherwise raise humanitarian concerns, as the basis for whether to deport or not. This amendment was approved 10-8.

Still coming up are more regressive amendments. For example, one amendment would, in effect, not allow any but higher-income undocumented immigrants to legalize. The method would be to exclude from legalization anybody whose income is less than 4 times the official poverty rate, on the assumption that such persons might become eligible for Medicare and other public benefits not available to undocumented people, if they were legalized.

Another upcoming amendment effectively prohibits undocumented immigrants in the initial phase of legalization from visiting their families overseas. This initial phase, in which they register with the government and become "Registered Provisional Immigrants" or RPI's lasts a minimum of ten years in the original text of the bill as created by the bipartisan "gang of 8": Six initial years and then renewal for another four years before one can become a legal permanent resident with access to citizenship. Even in the original version of the bill, this is very problematic, especially as it requires the person to hold a job for that whole time, with no more than 60 days of unemployment during the whole period. This gives employers as much of a stranglehold over these workers' wage demands as does undocumented status. The amendment would disqualify from legalization any RPIs who leave the country by prohibiting their return. And undocumented immigrants who visit their original homelands don't usually do so for trivial reasons, but rather for family crises such as the death or illness of a parent.

Two other regressive amendments worth mentioning are one that mandates that decisions of the immigration system regarding the issuance or denial of visas not be reviewable by federal courts. Another, by Cruz, that would prohibit former undocumented immigrants from ever becoming citizens.

More progressive amendments are also in the pipeline, including one sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., that would allow citizens in same sex marriages to petition for green cards for their spouses.

Meanwhile in the House, the Republican leadership is threatening to break parallel legislation into separate components and deal with them piecemeal. Supporters of immigration reform fear that this would mean that repressive, anti-immigrant measures would be passed easily, and progressive measures such as the legalization of the undocumented would languish or be defeated.

In the country as a whole, deportations continue at a high rate, and so does street action including numerous protests in support of specific individuals facing deportation. During May Day celebrations, many of the speakers and marchers hit the theme of immigration reform. Saul Arellano, the 13 year old son of Elvira Arellano, a Mexican undocumented woman who gained national attention by spending a year in sanctuary in a church in Chicago before being deported, has been collecting letters from the thousands of U.S. citizen children now living in Mexico because their parents were deported. Also being collected are letters from U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants living in the United States and young people eligible for the DREAM Act (now incorporated in S 744), to be presented to members of Congress and the president. These letters call for an end to deportations and the family disruption they cause.

Photo: Hundreds of children and their families protest unjust deportations and family separation in Chicago on March 26 (Winona Albano Bachtell).

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