Immigrant rights battle moves to Congress

CHICAGO – Debate swirls among immigrant communities in the United States about how to respond to President Bush’s recent announcement of a plan to deal with undocumented immigration. The Bush plan is viewed as a mechanism for assuring U.S. employers a steady supply of cheap labor, but which does nothing to protect immigrant workers from exploitation or to help them acquire full legal status.

At a well-attended church hall rally in the Mexican-majority Pilsen neighborhood on Jan. 19, speakers from SEIU, MALDEF, Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the general immigrant public denounced the limitations and drawbacks of the Bush plan.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) announced that he will push in this session of Congress legislation calling for a complete legalization program for immigrants (last year he introduced such a bill, HR 440, which is still on the House calendar). At the same time, Senators Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) have announced that they will put in a similar bill in the Senate. Both the Gutierrez bill and the Daschle-Hagel proposal would allow legalization and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for five years, have worked and paid taxes, and are of “good moral character.”

The anti-immigrant campaign is still in full swing, however. A Mexican immigrant was arrested last week in Chicago and processed for deportation, after being detained by police for taking a “tourist photograph” of the city’s tallest building, the Sears Tower. Thousands of post cards and pictures of the Sears Tower, viewed from every angle, are available in every shop in downtown Chicago. Mexican American community groups and immigrants’ rights organizations are protesting the incident and others like it.

Another piece of immigrant-related legislation has gathered considerable support from right-wingers in Congress. This is the CLEAR (Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal) Act, HR 2671, which already has 112 cosponsors, mostly Republicans from southern states. If this act is passed, it will oblige state and local police to act as immigration enforcement agents, on pain of loss of some of their federal funding if they refuse. Police officers who stop and investigate people “on suspicion” of being undocumented will be protected from resulting civil rights suits, and their budgets will be enhanced by the proceeds of fines and property seizures. Immigrants’ rights advocates warn that under this act, every incompetent, corrupt or racist small town policeman will be given the right to harass anyone who looks or sounds foreign.

Furthermore, right-wing anti-immigrant forces in and out of Congress are working to present a bill that would require hospitals to check the immigration status of all patients, and to report undocumented patients to the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Citizenship Services for arrest and possible deportation within two hours of seeing them. This bill, which does not have a name or number yet, is to be introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-Calif.). The bill would endanger the health of immigrants (who might defer early treatment for disease rather than expose themselves to deportation) and of the general public, as well as forcing medical personnel to either endanger their institutions’ funding or violate their professional oaths.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.