Senate debate on immigration begins

News Analysis

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has upped the ante in the national debate on comprehensive immigration reform by setting May 14 as the start of floor debate on the issue.

Behind the scenes, President Bush has been working with Republican senators to push a far more punitive bill than the one that was passed in the Senate last year, when Republicans were the majority. Reid’s move should bring the debate out into the open, with up and down votes on key provisions of such a bill.

There is tremendous pressure for passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill before the summer congressional recess in August. After that, pressures of the 2008 presidential and congressional races would make compromise even more problematic.

The change of power in Congress, a revitalized immigrant rights movement and a public opinion trend more favorable to immigrants have made legalization of current and future immigrant workers — instead of their criminalization — the focus.

As the legislative battle begins, the over 500,000 people who marched for immigrant rights on May Day have moved the issue of legalization far forward.

Bush’s legislative approach in the Senate is for highly punitive legalization for lower-wage and less-skilled workers. In an outline of Senate talking points leaked by the White House, there is a prohibitive $10,000 fine per family member for legalization. Visas for family reunification would be reduced or nearly eliminated, favoring only those who are highly skilled. Future low-skilled workers would be in a second-class status guest worker program with two-year visas and no rights for their families to join them in the United States.

Administratively, Bush has stepped up raids and deportations, which officials openly state are aimed at convincing immigrants and others to accept punitive legalization and guest worker programs. Most right-wing Republicans still advocate enforcement-only measures, despite the fact that this position cost them many seats in last November’s elections.

Most Democrats support legalization and border security. They are seeking bipartisan support in favor of a comprehensive package that includes some punitive measures.

Business is working both sides of the aisle. Bush’s strategy plays to the interests of the bigger corporations that are proposing measures to increase the “competitiveness” of U.S. business on a global scale.

Labor opposes punitive measures, which make immigrants more vulnerable to exploitation and which undermine workers’ solidarity. The labor movement is insisting on full rights for all workers.

The Senate is where the Bush/corporate priorities have a stronger base. The slim 51-49 Democratic majority there, along with the 60-vote requirement to close debate, makes it easier for the Republican right wing to block a vote.

The House has a larger Democratic majority, with scores of Latino, African American, labor and civil-rights-based representatives, many in key positions. Legislation from the House is expected to be more immigrant-friendly.

Open debate in the Senate first, and then in the House, will give greater opportunities for the immigrant rights movement to educate and build support for stronger, broader and more just legalization.

Starting with the May Day rallies, immigrant rights groups are organizing and calling for full legalization. Supporters are being organized to telephone their senators in support of legalization and to state their opposition to Bush’s guest worker program and any elimination or reduction of moves toward family reunification.