Dramatic Senate showdown on immigrant rights. News Analysis.

The Senate debate on immigration “reform” was moving toward a dramatic showdown during the week of April 3, and no one can say what kind of legislation will eventually be passed, or if any legislation will be passed. There are competing bills from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and the Senate Judiciary Committee, and there is a possibility of a filibuster or a stalemate, both of which would delay the whole issue.

On March 27, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill that is now being called the Specter-Leahy bill, S 3192, named after the chair of the committee, Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and ranking committee member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Starting with a draft (or “chairman’s mark”) by Specter that greatly resembled HR 4437, the repressive House bill that is the motive for massive immigrant rights protests around the country, Democratic and some Republican senators were able to add amendments that significantly modified the bill in the direction of legislation introduced last year by Senators McCain (R-Ariz.) and Kennedy (D-Mass.).

A mechanism for legalization and access to citizenship for the 11-12 million undocumented immigrants was added to the bill, plus a guest worker program which allows guest workers eventual access to full permanent resident status. Important victories in the committee were the approval of the Agjobs bill as an amendment to Specter-Leahy, which will allow 1.5 million undocumented farmworkers to eventually become legal, and the DREAM Act, which will help undocumented youth who have grown up and gone to school in the U.S. to access college education.

Also, the Sensenbrenner-Specter proposal to declare all undocumented immigrants to be felons was stripped out of the bill, and a similar plan to turn people who help the undocumented into felons was significantly weakened. Finally, the total number of permanent resident visas was expanded by separating those obtained on the basis of having close relatives in the United States from the overall limit, and by expanding the number of work-related visas for unskilled workers somewhat.

However, Specter had imported so much repressive language from HR 4437 into his “mark” that much of it still remains in the Specter-Leahy bill, and this is very dangerous stuff indeed. Only a small sampling of repressive, anti-immigrant elements in Specter-Leahy include the following:

* Although people who help undocumented immigrants as a “charitable act” will not be felons if Specter-Leahy becomes law, it is by no means clear that people who rent them apartments or provide them with other day-to-day services that make their illegal presence in the country possible would not be persecuted, even by forfeiture of property. Will all landlords in the country now have to check the immigration status of their tenants? And it is not even clear that friends and relatives of immigrants, or unions and labor centers, fall under the “charitable” category.

* There are big assaults against due process in the Specter-Leahy bill. Room will be made to detain up to 100,000 immigrants at a time, as the government will have the right to detain indefinitely immigrants under deportation orders whose countries will not take them back — reversing prior Supreme Court decisions forbidding this. Immigration officials will have increased summary power to kick immigrants and refugees out of the country without judicial review. Immigrants petitioning for legalization will have to waive the right to appeal adverse decisions by the government.

* Language in the bill bars the possibility that an immigrant gaining legalization if the person has falsified documents in order to live and work in the U.S., e.g. if they fudged a fake Social Security number on their I-9 forms when they applied for a job. Conceivably, millions of immigrants could be denied legalization because of this, particularly if it is applied retroactively.

* Employers who receive Social Security No-Match letters (informing them that one of their employees has submitted a Social Security number that does not match up with the government’s database) will now have to report to the government on what action they have taken with respect to that employee, even though the database in question, which employers will now have to use proactively, is known to be full of mistakes.

In every respect, the Frist bill, S 2454 is worse, so some immigrants rights groups are taking the stance that the Specter-Leahy bill needs to be supported in order to defeat Frist. The National Immigration Law Center and the Rights Working Group feel that Specter-Leahy itself cannot be supported unless more of the negative elements are eliminated by amendments.

All are united in the determination to keep on lobbying to remove the negative elements of Specter-Leahy and to at least defeat the Frist bill, for which purpose there will be major labor-led rallies all around the country on April 10. On the other side, President Bush continues to project an image of humane moderation, but we must remember that when the ghastly Sensenbrenner bill was passed in December, he said not one word against its viciously repressive dimensions.

Meanwhile, on a separate tack, Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) has introduced a new bill in the House, HR 5035, which attempts to address one of the brutal effects of the repressive approach to immigration.

There are hundreds of thousands of spouses and minor children around the country, U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents, who have been left without a mother, father or spouse who has been deported either for being undocumented, or because of conviction for certain offenses, some of them rather minor.

Before 1996, immigration judges, and regular federal court judges on appeal, had wide discretion to allow such spouses and parents to stay in the United States because of the hardship their deportation would create for the family. In that year, Congress passed and President Clinton signed two bills, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, that began a process of taking away this discretion and in fact of making it harder and harder for immigrants to appeal the decisions of immigration judges (who are not part of the independent judiciary, but are within the executive branch) to the regular federal courts.

Serrano’s bill begins to correct this huge injustice by restoring the judges’ discretion in cases wherein there are U.S.-born and U.S. citizen children who will be harmed by the deportation of an undocumented parent.