Immigrant rights activists vow to press forward

Led by President Bush and the right-wing Heritage Foundation, Senate Republicans closed ranks and turned their backs this week on the millions who demonstrated for immigrant rights this spring.

As the World was going to press, the Republican-led Senate was moving to pass S 2611, the hotly debated “compromise” immigration bill, after defeating Democratic-led efforts to ensure a path to citizenship and stronger civil rights and labor protections for most undocumented workers. The Senate vote was expected on or before May 26.

The legislative package, S 2611, known as the Hagel-Martinez compromise, was patched together in early April before the Senate’s spring recess in an attempt to reach a bipartisan consensus on issues relating to legalization for the undocumented, a temporary worker program and border and interior law enforcement. During the recess, most Senate Republicans, including their leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), were seeking even harsher restrictions on immigrants.

Mass nationwide demonstrations and boycotts by millions in April and May generated pressure on the Senate to adopt even stronger pro-immigrant rights measures than embodied in the compromise, and with continued mass lobbying pressure in mid-May, resulted in proposed amendments by liberal Democrats prioritizing legalization and immigrant rights.

On May 15 President Bush launched a public relations blitz to prioritize enforcement issues in the Senate debate, featuring deployment of the National Guard on the border with Mexico. Administration political guru Karl Rove made visits to the Heritage Foundation and congressional Republicans.

Bush staged a second press conference at the border at Yuma, Ariz., May 18, and dedicated his May 20 national radio address to border enforcement. The Heritage Foundation began projecting that major legalization would result in tens to hundreds of millions of documented and undocumented immigrants coming into the country in coming decades.

The Bush blitz was timed to coincide with the reopening of Senate floor debate on S 2611 on May 15, with Frist planning for a final vote by May 26. During the first week, restrictive and punitive Republican amendments dominated the debate, with most being narrowly defeated. This set the stage for the defeat of major pro-immigrant amendments this week.

The pro-immigrant amendments, led by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposal to provide legalization for most immigrants who arrived in the U.S. prior to Jan. 1, 2006, were introduced on May 22. Frist rushed through their defeat May 23. The Feinstein amendment lost by a vote of 61-37, with only one Republican in favor.

Then, in quick succession, amendments by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to get a better deal for people seeking asylum, Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to beef up enforcement against labor abuses, and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to give relief to families with U.S. citizen members which are being broken up by the deportation of a family member, were all shot down by the Republicans. By opposing these amendments, “moderate” Republicans like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) revealed their loyalty to corporate interests rather than to either immigrant or non-immigrant workers.

When and if a bill is passed by the Senate, a conference committee of selected House and Senate members would be established to reconcile its provisions with the draconian Sensenbrenner bill, HR 4437. The joint House-Senate bill, which could come to vote in June, is expected to be enforcement-heavy and to contain weaker, if any, legalization provisions. If the joint bill wins approval of the full House and Senate, it will likely resemble Bush’s original January 2004 proposal for harsh enforcement and a guest worker program.

Immigrant rights groups are looking to return to street heat and mobilizations for citizenship, voter registration, education and turnout to influence the continuing legislative process and the Nov. 7 elections. The We are America Coalition, which includes labor, religious and immigrant rights groups, says that July 1 will be a kickoff for massive voter registration drives all over the country. There will be a drive for naturalization of eligible non-citizens, major rallies around Labor Day, and then large-scale campaigns to mobilize the pro-immigrant vote in November.