The annual Take Back America conference of progressive and liberal activists and organizations, which took place March 17-19 in Washington, D.C., included a number of speakers on immigration.

Both members of the audience and speakers saw the defeat of the viciously anti-immigrant SAVE bill (HR 4088), now being pushed in the House by the GOP leadership abetted by some conservative Democrats, as a crucial immediate task.

This bill, which would deputize police officers as immigration agents, criminalize people who provide social services or otherwise help undocumented immigrants, and would try to use the Social Security system records as an immigration enforcement tool, was seen by a number of conference participants as a recipe for chaos.

Responding to comments from the floor on the SAVE Act, Cristina Lopez, Deputy Director of the Center for Community Change, urged action to stop a process now underway whereby the SAVE Act’s sponsors are trying to avoid committee deliberations by getting 218 members of Congress to sign a “discharge petition” allowing direct consideration on the House floor. She pointed out that 181 persons had already signed, and urged participants to contact their representatives to make sure that no more sign.

Stephanie Luongo, State and Local Policy Analyst for SEIU, talked about the more than 1,600 anti-immigrant laws submitted to state and local legislatures in the past year.

These bills have become a mainstay of mostly Republican politicians who have hoped to use them to organize the support of anti-immigrant voters. They call for state crackdowns on employment of undocumented workers, as well as for giving state and local police immigration enforcement power and mandating the use of “English only.”

Luongo said that in fact, only about 244 of these bills have passed. She suggested the way to counter them was to push to strengthen and enforce labor law covering occupational health and safety and wages and hours. She warned against stressing a general immigration crackdown on employers, as this will lead to immigrant workers losing their jobs and to hiring discrimination.

In a second panel, Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, talked about the devastating effect of the March 2007 immigration enforcement raid by the federal ICE at the Bianco factory, in New Bedford, Mass., which makes bullet-proof vests for U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

Noorani denounced the complete lack of due process, and the fact that hundreds of families were left without information about what happened to their loved ones swept up in the raid. These abuses were also denounced by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, and Rep. Bill Delahunt, all Democrats.

Frank Sharry, outgoing Director of the National Immigration Forum, expanded the theme to talk about immigrants in the United States in general, saying “immigrant communities are now living in a state of siege.”

He said the GOP, aided by some congressional Democrats, is evidently reviving the much-used “Southern Strategy” of winning back Congress by mobilizing socially conservative impulses of sections of the electorate — in this case, with a racist mobilization against Latino immigrants going forward under high-falutin’ language about the “rule of law.” Sharry stressed that it is not a question of “bad people breaking bad laws but of good people subjected to bad laws.” He questioned whether this is going to work as an electoral strategy, citing recent electoral defeats of some of the biggest anti-immigrant demagogues.

To counter the anti-immigrant forces’ demagogic claim that they are helping U.S. workers against immigrant job-thieves, Sharry urged Democrats to fight for worker-friendly legislation that is also pro-immigrant.

The Rev. Jamila Jaye Woods-Jones, African American pastor of a church in Central Maryland who is also affiliated with the Gamaliel Foundation, cited the Biblical injunction to treat “the stranger who is among you” as you would your own family because “we were all strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Of those who cross the border without authorization out of economic need, she asked rhetorically, “What wouldn’t you do to provide for the safety of your children?”