There is a lull in dramatic congressional debates and spectacular mass marches, but important things are happening on immigration reform, and the movement for immigrant rights cannot rest.

In December the House passed an anti-immigrant bill, HR 4437, which would criminalize all undocumented immigrants and people who help them, while building a 700-mile barrier along the U.S.-Mexican border. Last month, the Senate approved S 2611, which contains many repressive elements but would also legalize some undocumented immigrants and create a guest worker program.

The next step is a House-Senate conference committee to reconcile the two bills. But this has not got under way, and it may not before the November elections. There are ominous signs about what could happen in this committee.

House Judiciary Chair James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the author of HR 4437, says that legislation including legalization of undocumented immigrants will only pass over his dead body. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) says he will not let any bill advance that lacks the support of a majority of Republican House members. And ultra-right Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) claims S 2611 is unconstitutional because it has tax implications and such bills can only originate in the House.

The Bush administration, while hypocritically calling for more polite language in the immigration debate, is cranking up repression. Workplace arrests and deportations have increased dramatically. Now, Bush has issued new rules concerning “no-match” letters.

The Social Security Administration sends “no-match” letters to employers to inform them of discrepancies between the Social Security numbers submitted for employees and the government’s data.

Up to now, the letters were not to be used for disciplinary action against workers, nor shared with other government agencies. Under the Bush plan, employers would be required to report to the government on actions taken for each discrepancy, and information would be shared with other agencies, including Homeland Security.

This will cause many immigrant workers to lose their jobs. But rather than going back to countries where they do not have jobs or in some cases even homes and families, they will accept worse jobs in which they are paid cash under the table, with absolutely no rights.

The big danger is that the conference committee will approve a bill including repressive elements from HR 4437, a guest worker program with no labor protections, and no legalization program. Many say it would be better that there be a stalemate, because the November elections might establish a more favorable Congress — the Republican Party is in trouble over Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, and economics, and may lose both houses.

Sensenbrenner and Hastert blocked all progressive immigration bills in this session and allowed the reactionary HR 4437 to be rammed through with lightening speed. If the Republicans lose, the chair of the Judiciary Committee will be John Conyers (D-Mich.), a supporter of workers’ rights.

In the Senate, Judiciary Chair Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) packed his “chairman’s mark” version with more repressive items from HR 4437 than could be amended out. If the Republicans lose the Senate, Specter will be replaced by Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who is more favorable to immigrants’ rights.

But we cannot maintain a hands-off attitude toward the conference committee’s deliberations, in the hope of a stalemate. Bush wants a bill signed before the elections and will continue to exert pressure to make sure that it happens.

So it is essential to keep up the pressure.

Without the massive immigrant mobilizations, a viciously repressive bill might already have been signed by the president. The mobilizations helped to change public opinion on immigration and forced the GOP to back off in the Senate. Without this, it would have been impossible to add those positive Senate amendments that did pass.

This pressure should be kept up and broadened by linking to issues affecting other sectors, including African Americans and the whole working class. There should be protests against arrests and deportations and against anti-immigrant hate speech in the media.

Intense targeted lobbying is still necessary, in spite of the limited prospects for a progressive outcome in the conference committee. The ultra-right will try to cram even worse provisions into the legislation. If there is inadequate lobbying to oppose such things, they will end up as law.

But also very important right now is citizenship, voter registration and electoral mobilization. The right wing will try to suppress the vote of African Americans and Latinos. The experiences of 2000 and 2004 teach us that we have to register and mobilize every possible voter to overcome this.

Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist in Virginia.