Bipartisan Senate immigration bill looks like a bitter pill

Indications are that a new immigration reform bill with some bipartisan support will be introduced very soon in the Senate. But there are going to be some severe problems with the bill, which will be tilted well to the right of the House bill, HR 4321,  recently introduced by U.S. Reps. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, and Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill..

This week, President Obama met with three different groups of people interested in the immigration reform legislation. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus talked to him about their frustration with health care legislation that, when finished, may stop undocumented immigrants from even buying private insurance from proposed pools with their own money. It would also restrict help with health care financing to legal immigrants who have been in the country for five years or less. The Hispanic Caucus wants a guarantee that there will be an immigration reform which includes the legalization of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Secondly, Obama invited representatives of a number of immigration reform organizations to meet with him in the White House on Thursday, March 11. Press reports indicate that in this meeting, he said immigration reform could not proceed without “substantial” Republican support. The Democrats with independent allies have 59 votes in the Senate, but not all the Democratic senators are in favor of legalization, and there is the issue of breaking a potential filibuster, which requires 60 votes.

Coming out of the meeting, some of the union and community leaders said that they were somewhat encouraged that Obama did commit to try to get a Senate bill before the major immigrants’ rights demonstration to be held in Washington D.C. on March 21.  However, they also said that Obama stressed to them the political difficulty of doing this. The activists also asked Obama to immediately suspend the deportation of ordinary, non-criminal undocumented people.

The third group with which Obama met consisted of U.S. Senators Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.  They have undertaken the task of crafting a Senate bill. So far they have neither introduced it nor given details of what it might contain. There are signs, however, that it is likely to be much more conservative and oriented toward big business than the Ortiz-Gutierrez bill. They plan to include a mandatory national ID card containing biometric data for all workers. Also, they want to re-insert the idea of a large-scale new guest worker program into the legislation, which most of organized labor opposes. Finally, they want to sharply cut back permanent resident visas based on family unity, and replace them with visas based on job skills, stressing people who have higher education and advanced technical skills. 

To top it off, Graham threatened that if the Democrats try to use “reconciliation” to pass health care reform, the Republicans will kill any attempt at immigration reform.

All of these things place the projected Schumer-Graham bill well to the right of the Ortiz-Gutierrez bill, and some of them would probably worsen the situation for both immigrant and U.S. citizen or legal resident workers. For example, most undocumented immigrants emigrate because the impact of corporate controlled globalization has eliminated their livelihoods and closed off all other options for family survival. They come illegally because their poverty and lack of advanced education means they can’t get a visa. The United States gives out only about 5,000 visas a year to people in that skills category. But a few more can come in legally by being sponsored by relatives legally in the U.S.  The Schumer-Graham proposal would seem to cut off even that escape route.  Their choice will be: Stay home in an untenable situation, come here as a guest worker with few rights, or come here undocumented with absolutely no enforceable rights at all.

Some on the left are organizing against the Ortiz-Gutierrez bill, because it does not give the undocumented immediate, almost unconditional amnesty, and that it contains trade offs of various kinds involving enforcement.  They wish to push the legislation to the left, and ready to mount resistance to the passage of both bills if this can not be achieved.

Looking at the balance of power in Congress and the country, this seems to be a way of ensuring that no legislation is passed at all. If that happens, the 11 or so million undocumented immigrants, about 8 and a half million or so of who are workers, will see their situation degenerate even more, harming the whole working class. The real fight in the coming weeks is going to be over what mix of good and bad elements will be in the legislation, and how this impacts on its possibilities for passage.

Photo: Clarissa Martinez de Castro, with the National Council of La Raza, center, talks to reporters outside the White House, March 11, after meeting with President Barack Obama to discuss comprehensive immigration reform. Alex Brandon/AP




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.