RIVERSIDE, Calif. — The Republican leadership of the U.S. Senate has indicated that floor debate on landmark changes in immigration policy will begin the week of March 27. But the debate will get under way weeks earlier in the Judiciary Committee.

Last December, House Republicans pushed through HR 4437, containing drastically repressive measures. President Bush, who endorsed the House bill, has made it clear he wants the Senate to add a massive increase in “temporary” worker permit programs along with tougher restrictive measures.

Corporate media pundits say the debate will center on “enforcement only” versus temporary worker programs. A growing grassroots upsurge of immigrant communities and their allies is struggling to shift the focus to human, civil and labor rights.

The president has requested big funding increases in anti-immigrant punitive enforcement programs along with funds to expand temporary worker programs.

“It’s the old good cop, bad cop tactic, with both trying to lock you up,” said Herman Baca. An immigrant rights activist for over 35 years, Baca is president of the San Diego-based Committee on Chicano Rights.

Baca was present at a Feb. 11 conference here opposing HR 4437 and calling for legalization with equal rights for immigrant workers. Sponsored by the Latino-led National Alliance For Human Rights, the conference drew over 400 Latino community, labor and religious leaders and activists from all over California, along with delegations from other states. Participants voted to immediately initiate petitions, letter-writing and phone lobbying of senators at their local and Washington, D.C., offices. The conference also called for wide support for local demonstrations and a mass mobilization for immigrant rights in Los Angeles on March 25.

The Riverside meeting reflects growing awareness among the immigrant community and progressive activists of what is at stake in the Republican drive for more restrictive policies. Activity and outreach on the issue by established national and local immigrants rights coalitions including labor, civil rights and religious groups have helped deepen and broaden the pressure on the Senate.

In California activism is growing day by day. In Los Angeles a recently formed Pro-Immigrant Group of La Placita has helped spur media attention and public awareness, starting Jan. 31 with a protest vigil during the president’s State of the Union address. A Feb. 2 procession from La Placita Church to City Hall carried 10,000 signatures calling, successfully, for the city to lobby the Senate for justice in immigration reform. The coalition has drawn the area’s Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace and the Los Angles Labor Council for Latin American Advancement to join these efforts.

The La Placita group has supported citywide coalition actions of immigrant workers, Asian Pacific American, Latino, labor and religious groups, including rallies in front of local Republican and Democratic headquarters Feb. 9, and at the Los Angeles office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) Feb. 15.

On Feb. 3 and 4, the group hosted rallies for another major grassroots initiative: the Caravan/March For Migrants. Begun by San Diego activists, the caravan is traveling to Washington, D.C., and back rallying immigrant rights forces in major cities to oppose HR 4437 and push for pro-immigrant reform.

In Connecticut, local efforts have resulted in a sign-on letter circulated by the state AFL-CIO to Sens. Christopher Dodd and Joseph Lieberman, urging them to “take leadership for immigrant rights.” In Philadelphia, immigrant restaurant workers led a “Day Without Immigrants,” with many taking time off work to join a downtown protest for immigrant rights. Delegations to senators and local and state officials on the issue have taken place and are planned in Illinois, Wisconsin, Arizona and a growing number of areas nationwide.

The budding movement for immigrant rights pressure on the Senate debate will have to continue to grow and draw in more allies from opponents of the Bush GOP in order to block the right-wing assault and open doors for equality for immigrant workers and their families.