Senate Republicans feel street heat

The massive immigrant rights demonstrations, work stoppages, boycotts and voter registration efforts, embraced by millions of immigrants and their supporters from coast to coast May 1, have sent a powerful message to Congress: We are Americans who deserve rights and respect, not repression!

But inside Washington’s Beltway, the Republican-dominated Congress continues to put top priority on passing anti-immigrant restrictions and punitive enforcement measures.

Senate Majority Leader Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who earlier said he might take the immigration issue back to the Senate floor by May 8, said on May 1, “I will bring back comprehensive reform in about two weeks, comprehensive reform that starts by tightening our borders — border security first and foremost.”

Increasing the drama on this and other congressional matters were the results of a USA Today/Gallup poll taken April 28-30 showing a 54-39 point preference for Democrats over Republicans among registered voters in this election year.

The immigration debate currently centers on negotiations around S 2611, the so-called Hagel-Martinez compromise bill. The bill stalled in committee on April 7, purportedly over a procedural issue.

The Bush administration’s “carrot and stick” approach of offering to broker such a compromise while carrying out nationwide immigration raids neither deterred the broadening and deepening immigrant rights movement nor improved Bush’s standing in the polls, which dropped further into the lower 30 percent range on May 1.

Within the immigrant rights movement there is broad agreement about the serious weaknesses of the Hagel-Martinez bill, especially on the issues of legalization and labor and civil rights protections. Some, however, believe it can be modified by pro-immigrant amendments, while others stress the dangers of attempting win a decent compromise in a right-wing, GOP-controlled political process.

The AFL-CIO, ACLU, NOW, and many Latino and civil rights organizations have sharply criticized the compromise bill as unacceptable, and have urged their members to communicate as much to their senators and representatives.

The National Network on Immigrant and Refugee Rights has won some support with a call to oppose the compromise approach, including from the AFL-CIO, although most major labor, civil rights, church and Latino groups are not taking such a position at this time.

The Catholic Conference of Bishops and the Service Employees International Union have placed their main emphasis on negotiating a bipartisan compromise with a tradeoff that they say would be beneficial, overall, to the immigrant communities.

Immigrant rights advocates indicate that pro-civil-rights and legalization amendments are being prepared for possible presentation by one or more leading Democrats when the Senate debate resumes.

Many of the immigrant rights demonstrations called for full legalization in any bill.

Public opinion polls show a strong and growing majority of voters rejecting the harshly restrictive and punitive approach of HR 4437, the so-called Sensenbrenner bill, which was rammed through the House by the Republican leadership with the support of the White House. The polls show a fluid consensus for a combination of legalization for large numbers of undocumented workers with some restrictive measures.

There is growing popular support for the calls for acceptance of, and solidarity with, immigrant communities. This was evident in the widespread support for the April 10 and May 1 events.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney expressed this growing solidarity in a May 1 message greeting the protests. “Immigrant workers are our sisters and brothers, and every person who works in this country is entitled to the full range of rights and opportunities America provides,” he said. “We support immigrant workers because supporting all working people is the core of our labor movement. We are always stronger together than when we allow ruthless employers and the politicians they own to drive wedges between us.”

The May 1 economic protest, whether it took the form of not going to work, boycotting retail stores, not going to school or closing down businesses for a day, also increased awareness about the importance of immigrants to the overall economy.

A Los Angeles Times article on the May 1 boycott activities said the economic message was emphatic and unmistakable. “This was a reality check,” said Economic Roundtable President Daniel Flaming. “You can’t wish away these workers. They are rooted in the community. Not everyone realized that before.”

Sen. Frist’s emphasis on “enforcement first” is under growing pressure from many sides, as his decision to delay debate for “about two weeks” suggests. Increased pressure on senators, indicating that the Hagel-Martinez bill, S 2611, is unacceptable without major pro-immigrant amendments, may bottle up the right-wing drive for more restrictive and repressive immigration laws.