Senate Democratic leaders, under massive pressure from the immigrant rights movement, have presented an outline for an immigration reform bill. But many will find the Senate proposal wanting.

Presented by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sens. Charles Schumer, D-NY, and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the “Conceptual Proposal for Immigration Reform” is not yet a bill. And the one Republican senator who was said to be thinking about signing on, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has backed away. Yet the proposal is pitched to Republicans and big business. It is well to the right of HR 4321, already introduced by Reps. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, and Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.

Most of the Reid-Schumer-Menendez proposal is aimed at border and interior crackdowns on undocumented immigration, but it contains an arduous process for the legalization of undocumented immigrants.

The proposal would give the Secretary of Homeland Security the authority to deploy National Guard troops at the borders. A bipartisan commission would monitor border security and recommend actions to deal with smuggling, terrorism and unauthorized immigration.

Biometric and other technology would be employed to deal with people who overstay visas. There would be a crackdown on the selling and use of false documents. The controversial 287(g) program which encourages local, county and state police to act as immigration enforcers would continue.

A major part of the proposal is dedicated to the proposed BELIEVE (Biometric Enrollment, Locally-stored Information and Electronic Verification of Employment) system. This involves a new “fraud resistant, tamper resistant” biometric Social Security card that would be required to get a job in the United States. BELIEVE would have to be used every time someone is hired, on pain of serious sanctions on employers.

The Senate proposal would make it much easier for foreign nationals who get U.S. degrees in science, mathematics, technology and engineering to become permanent residents. The proposal also includes AgJOBS, a plan long ago agreed to between agricultural interests and farm workers unions to bring in seasonal agricultural workers. And it includes the DREAM act, which gives a break to undocumented youth wishing to attend college, or willing to serve in the military.

It provides a new guest worker program for non-seasonal, non-agricultural workers, to be allowed in to the U.S. for a maximum of two three-year signups. The workers in this program “shall be permitted to earn lawful permanent residence” if they meet sufficient “integration metrics.” The proposal does not indicate how many people would be brought in every year in this H-2C program.

Finally, the Reid-Schumer-Menendez proposal allows for the legalization of the undocumented via a program that “requires all illegal immigrants living in the U.S. to come forward to register, be screened and, if eligible, complete other requirements to earn legal status, including paying taxes.” Undocumented immigrants would only qualify if they “intend to stay in the U.S., integrate into society, and become productive, taxpaying members of the community.”

If they can jump over this initial hurdle, they become “lawful permanent immigrants” but can only become “lawful permanent residents” by keeping out of trouble for eight years “after current backlogs have cleared.” They would then have to undergo updated background checks, prove they have learned English and U.S. history and civics, pay all taxes and register for the Selective Service system. But guarantees that most undocumented immigrants can actually get legalized are missing.

What to make of this? Some on the left take an all-or-nothing rejectionist approach to virtually all comprehensive immigration reform legislation. That includes even the Ortiz-Gutierrez bill which contains enforcement trade-offs in exchange for its legalization program.

In a just world, non-criminal undocumented immigrants would receive automatic legal status with thanks for their contributions to the U.S. economy and society plus apologies for past abuses. The United States would sign and comply with the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which no wealthy capitalist country has yet signed.

But we live in the world of Arizona’s vicious anti-immigrant law, and immigrants are under more and more attack every day. So we have to prioritize.

It is intolerable that 10.8 million human beings have to live without any rights either in the workplace or in the community and so are victimized by exploiting employers, sexually harassing supervisors, negligent landlords, racially-profiling cops, swindling businessmen and racist vigilantes. The mass demonstrations we’ve seen show that these immigrants will fight for their rights if given a chance, which would help all workers. So the quick and complete legalization of the undocumented is of the highest priority, and worth some tradeoffs.

People will still want to migrate from poor countries to the United States, so another priority would be to give them a way to do this safely and legally. But this should be done via permanent resident visas, not guest worker programs that lend themselves to so much abuse.

The Reid-Schumer-Menendez proposal does provide a legalization program. But the guest worker and biometric ID components are serious drawbacks.

The Ortiz-Gutierrez bill also contains less onerous tradeoffs. There is no big new guest worker program, other than AgJOBS. And it would eliminate 287(g) and restore to immigration judges the discretion to give people facing deportation a break in the interests of their minor children, both big advances.

We should reject calls to scuttle the whole legislative process and to just focus on demands for non-enforcement of current laws. It’s fine to demand a moratorium on deportation of non-criminal undocumented immigrants until comprehensive reform can be passed, but the government is not going to just forget about enforcing its laws.

We should call for the White House and the Democratic leadership to proceed on the basis of the Ortiz-Gutierrez bill. The immigrant rights movement and its allies should use the stick as well as the carrot on recalcitrant Republicans and right-wing Democrats.

It’s an uphill struggle. But if we don’t struggle, we will certainly not win, and we will demobilize the marvelous labor-community coalition that we saw out in the streets for immigrants’ rights on May Day.




Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.