Immigrant rights: Put mass pressure on Congress now!

This month must see greatly increased pressure from the progressive grassroots, or very nasty anti-immigrant legislation will likely be enacted.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), has presented a draft plan or “chairman’s mark” for “comprehensive immigration reform.” Although Specter took elements of this plan from several legislative proposals, he leaned heavily to the right, stressing new repressive measures such as those found in HR 4437, the Sensenbrenner bill passed by the House in December.

The mark features a large-scale guest worker program which lacks the minimum labor rights unions have insisted on, and which will allow for massive abuse and exploitation of temporary workers. There is no program to offer legalization and a path to eventual citizenship to the 11 million undocumented workers in the country. Instead, they will at best be shunted into a “permanent temporary worker” status with no labor rights. In exchange for merely applying for this status, they will have to waive their rights to appeal adverse government decisions on their cases.

Very troubling is the harshly repressive tone of the mark, which directly follows Sensenbrenner by making undocumented immigrants felons, threatening felony charges against people who help them, and sharply reducing the rights of immigrants to a hearing in the federal courts. In making the undocumented felons, the mark proposal automatically authorizes state and local police to investigate and arrest them, something spelled out more specifically in the Sensenbrenner bill.

When the House Judiciary Committee began debate on the chairman’s mark on March 2, it was immediately evident the plan would meet opposition from both left and right. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) spoke out in the committee against the document’s repressive and anti-labor dimensions, while Senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) did so in other settings, including meetings and rallies where they continued to promote their “Secure America” bill as being more generous and immigrant friendly.

The Judiciary Committee will debate the issue for several consecutive Thursdays. It is highly probable that both senators who consider the chairman’s mark to be too liberal, such as Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa.), and those who consider it too conservative (most Democrats) will start offering amendments to push it to the right or left. Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has stated that if the end product is too liberal for his tastes, he might introduce a more repressive bill directly to the floor, hoping to get something passed by March 27.

One problem for defenders of immigrant rights has been the lack of unity up to now among pro-immigrant forces. While several unions, notably SEIU and Unite Here, and most immigrant rights organizations have supported the McCain-Kennedy Bill, others —including the AFL-CIO, importantly — have not. Some unions, such as the Laborers’ International, support parts of McCain-Kennedy but balk at the guest worker component. The Congressional Black Caucus largely supports a different bill sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas).

But by tilting his chairman’s mark so far in the anti-immigrant direction, chairman Specter has drawn a clear line in the sand, against which all these forces can unite.

Key elements for such unity can be:

• Legalization to permanent resident (not temporary or conditional) status, with access to citizenship, for all undocumented immigrants.

• Roll back the policies of repression against immigrants that have accumulated since 1996, with no new repression or erosion of their civil and labor rights.

• No guest worker program. But if one is imposed, limit it as much as possible and include maximum guarantees of full rights for these workers, including the right to join a union and go on strike without risking deportation.

Already across the country, immigrant communities and their labor and civil rights allies — plus organizations such as the ACLU, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, the American Bar Association and both the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Coalition — have mobilized to stop HR 4437, the Sensenbrenner bill. This united, broad fight against HR 4437 can be extended to a fight against the anti-immigrant and anti-worker aspects of the Specter mark as well, irrespective of differences over McCain-Kennedy and other matters. All democratically minded people in the United States should consider this a priority struggle, and communicate the above demands to their senators and congresspersons as soon and as forcefully as possible.