Labor, immigrant rights groups: No two-tier society

The Senate-White House compromise bill on immigration reform was no sooner submitted than it ran into a storm of opposition.

Thee measure was sharply criticized by key components of the immigrant rights movement. Numerous labor, Latino, civil rights and immigrants rights groups have weighed in on the bill, which is considerably to the right of last year’s McCain-Kennedy bill and the STRIVE bill currently in the House.

Although some advocates are working to amend it, key groups are calling for the bill’s defeat because they say its problems are too many to be remedied by amendments. “The strategic goal here is to kill the White House-Senate bill,” said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velazquez Institute.

The bill, S 1348, is the product of negotiations, outside the committee process, among senators from both parties and the Bush administration. At least two weeks for amendments and debate are scheduled.

Eager to retain the anti-immigrant provisions in the bill, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said any major changes proposed by amendment would cause him and other Republicans to withdraw from the agreement. Many right-wing Republicans oppose the bill because it contains some legalization process.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney expressed the view of most of organized labor when he criticized the large guest worker program in the legislation, which would not allow guest workers to petition for a permanent resident visa and access to citizenship.

Guest workers could come for a two-year stint, and then would be forced to go back to their country of origin for a year before coming back for a second stint, then going back for another year and coming in again for a final two-year stint. The workers could only bring family with them if they all have health insurance and the family is 150 percent above the poverty level.

As Sweeney put it, “Without a real path to legalization, the program will exclude millions of workers and thus ensure that America will have two classes of workers, only one of which can exercise workplace rights … [this will] drive down benefits, wages, health and safety protections and other workplace standards.”

The bill would also radically change the process for determining the allocation of permanent resident visas, sharply reducing the number of people brought in on the basis of family relationships and substituting a system of “merit” points which would greatly favor more highly educated immigrants who speak English.

Lillian Rodriguez Lopez, president of the Hispanic Federation, said, “We cannot support the fact that this bill would do away with family reunification categories that Latinos rely on to reunite their families.”

The bill was also sharply criticized by the ACLU and the National Immigration Law Center for restricting the right of immigrants to appeal adverse decisions of immigration authorities and have their day in court.

Even the legalization process for current undocumented immigrants is seriously flawed. Esther Nieves, speaking for the American Friends Service Committee, said, “The proposed legislation does offer a limited path to citizenship, but unreasonable provisions, including lengthy waiting periods, fines, a new ‘merit-based’ system and other punitive hurdles mean that undocumented workers would need to wait for eight to 13 years to become citizens and pay the equivalent of up to six months’ wages.”

On May 22, an amendment to completely remove the guest worker program from the bill was defeated in the House 64-31. On May 23, the Senate voted 74-24 to slash the size of the guest worker program, capping the number of guest workers at 200,000 a year instead of the bill’s 400,000-600,000.

After the first week of debate ending May 25, the Senate will be on a one-week recess. The Senate will reconvene June 4, after which debate on the bill will continue. Labor, civil rights, Latino, religious and other groups are mobilizing visits, letters and phone calls to senators to either defeat the bill or radically amend it to promote immigrant rights.

Rosalio Muñoz contributed to this story.