News Analysis

The Republican leadership of the House of Representatives, counting on anti-immigrant hysteria it has helped whip up, is trying to ram through another reactionary piece of legislation like the USA Patriot Act. But labor and people’s forces are quickly rising to the challenge posed by this GOP blitzkrieg.

The Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, HR 4437, was introduced last week by House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), and pushed to a 23-15 party line committee vote one day later with no meaningful discussion. Sensenbrenner is trying to get the full House to approve the bill this week, but a storm of opposition is mounting. Labor, immigrants’ rights groups and allies are doing their utmost to stop the bill in the House and Senate.

This bill, which contains nothing about legalization of the undocumented, is ostensibly aimed at “illegal immigrants,” but its application will hurt many non-immigrants. Its provisions include the following:

• Presence in the country without authorization would become a felony instead of a misdemeanor. Since all undocumented immigrants will become felons by definition, they will be barred from legal status or citizenship, or returning legally once removed.

• It will require all employers (plus union hiring halls, workers’ centers and nonprofits that refer people for work) to check the Social Security numbers of job applicants via a government database to be sure they have the legal right to work in this country. After six years, employers will have to go back and check all their past hires. This database is currently used voluntarily, and has been found to be highly unreliable by the congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO). Many U.S. citizens will be denied jobs because of errors.

• It will expose relatives of undocumented immigrants, as well as people who provide them with services, to possible prosecution and stiff fines and jail sentences.

• It will deputize police in the U.S.-Mexico border area to act as immigration enforcers.

• It will allow immigration agents to summarily deport people in border areas they suspect of being undocumented, with little or no due process. It will prevent undocumented immigrants from going to court to combat unfair treatment. Many immigrants will be jailed, necessitating vast new prison holding capacity.

Bad as this all is, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) said he would try to “beef up” the bill with amendments calling for the construction of a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, and stripping U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants of their citizenship.

But the week after the committee vote has seen a rising movement to stop it.

The AFL-CIO wrote all members of Congress asking them to vote the bill down, pointing out that it will harm huge numbers of non-immigrant as well as immigrant workers, and that the real solution is a program of legalization of status with access to U.S. citizenship.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), ranking Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee, said the bill “is so heinous and extreme that the Democrats on this committee agree that this bill cannot be fixed.” The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, SEIU and other unions, Catholic and Protestant religious groups, the ACLU, the National Council of La Raza, People for the American Way and many others are organizing to stop HR 4437.

Protests have occurred on Capitol Hill, in Los Angeles and elsewhere. In Los Angeles, Maria Elena Durazo, president of Unite Here Local 11 and coordinator of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, spoke for millions when she said that the bill “goes against the thinking of the majority of the American people. … When you work hard and benefit the community, you deserve justice.”

Some are contrasting the Sensenbrenner bill with President Bush’s “guest worker” proposal. But the two are not incompatible. This may be a “good cop, bad cop” scenario, with the horrors of HR 4437 intended to stampede moderates into accepting the anti-worker guest worker program, instead of what both labor and immigrants’ rights organizations really are fighting for: full legalization and a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers who pick the crops, install the drywall, change the diapers and clean the dishes all over the USA.