News Analysis

The Senate Judiciary Committee will shortly begin debate on the measures it will send to the Senate floor on immigration law, one of the key legislative and electoral issues of 2006.

Committee staff are “looking at the possibility of marking up immigration legislation as early as Feb. 2,” says Douglas Rivlin, communications director for the National Immigration Forum.

The committee is expected to take up several immigration bills submitted by members as well as HR 4437, an extremely punitive measure passed by the House of Representatives in December. A growing coalition of immigrant rights, labor, religious and civil rights groups, racial and ethnic minority communities and some key business groups is building up steam in an uphill battle to block HR 4437 and other anti-immigrant measures. The coalition is united in proposing increased opportunities for legalization and citizenship as the basis of immigration law reform.

HR 4437 would make being an undocumented immigrant a felony, expand the definition of smuggling to include those who provide services to aliens, eliminate due process in many immigration proceedings, further militarize the border with walls and military equipment, and deputize employers and police to assist in enforcement of federal restrictions.

Republican House and Senate leadership and the president argue that cracking down on immigrants with greater restrictions and penalties should be the basis of immigration policy, although Senate Republican proposals as yet do not approach the extreme measures of HR 4437. The Senate proposals and President Bush’s position include provisions for temporary or guest workers with fewer labor and civil rights than workers with permanent resident status.

Most immigrant rights groups support S 1033, authored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and supported by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and some other Democrats. S 1033 includes a temporary worker program allowing for adjustment to permanent resident status. Working and living conditions for immigrant workers have been steadily worsening with increasing loss of rights as a result of local, state and federal policies, so support for legal status with a path to citizenship is a priority along with defeat of new punitive measures.

There are divisions among Republicans. Extreme anti-immigrant House members oppose any legalization, including guest/temporary worker measures. Most others are closer to Bush’s position, which contains severely restricted access to full legal status and includes support for many provisions in HR 4437.

Democrats are also divided. Most support a path to full legalization with some increased enforcement provision. Those from more metropolitan areas where racial minorities and immigrant communities, unions and civil rights groups are strongest are the strongest immigrant rights supporters. Those from more rural areas who are more vulnerable to Republican challenges are weaker on immigrant rights.

There are also divisions in business. The U.S. Chamber of Congress has opposed HR 4437 and supported the McCain bill, but major global corporations that have been the mainstay of the Bush administration — the military industrial complex, energy, international finance, outfits like Halliburton and Bechtel — have been silent on immigrant rights. Much of the corporate media has editorialized for a “carrot and stick” approach, but has given wide play to right-wing groups that advocate enforcement only.

Polls show that while a majority of voters favor greater control of immigration, they also favor legal status for the undocumented who have worked hard, raised families, paid taxes and integrated themselves in communities.

Mobilization of the public to oppose extreme measures and to support more democratic immigration policy can block the rightward direction of the Republican leadership. Moving millions of voters to see denial of rights to immigrants as undermining democracy for all is critical, starting with the approaching debate in the Senate.