June 23, 2006

Commentary:

Getting No Bill at All Is Better Than Senate Bill

By David Bacon

When the U.S. Senate passed its version of “comprehensive immigration reform,” senators from both sides of the aisle claimed that despite the enormous controversy the bill has generated, passing a bill with flaws was better than passing no bill at all. Outside of the beltway and its coterie of lobbyists, however, a groundswell of community groups now argue that Congress would do better to pass no bill than to enact a bill which reconciles the proposal just passed by the Senate, and that passed last December in the House of Representatives.

In a statement condemning the latest Hagel-Martinez compromise, SB 2611, immigrant rights advocates convened by the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights argued that “the rush to reach a bipartisan accord on immigration legislation has led to a compromise that would create deep divisions within the immigrant community and leave millions of undocumented immigrants in the shadows.”

“The current Senate bill,” said Sheila Chung, of the San Francisco Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition, “does not reflect the immigration reform called for by millions of immigrant communities marching the streets.”

The United States is currently home to over 12 million people without immigration documents, which makes them and their families subject to deportation and vulnerable to exploitation at work. Nevertheless, the groups point to the following provisions of the Senate bill, which will make immigrants much worse off than they are even at present:

—Under the Senate’s legalization plan, those with less than two years in the United States (about a million people) would be immediately subject to deportation. Those with two to five years must leave the country, and may apply to re-enter through some currently unknown process. The ability of border stations to handle the applications of the 3 to 4 million people involved is doubtful, given the current years-long backlog in normal visa applications.

—Like HR 4437 passed by the House in December, the Senate bill would ramp up the enforcement of current employer sanctions to make it a crime for undocumented people to hold a job. Employers often use this law to retaliate against workers who try to enforce labor standards or join unions. The Social Security Administration would become immigration police, forcing all workers to carry a new national ID card, and would require employers to fire anyone who’s documents they question.

—The Senate bill establishes and expands guest worker programs, allowing employers to recruit workers outside the country on temporary visas. These new contract workers would be vulnerable to employer pressure, since their visa status would be dependant on their employment. Further, as the AFL-CIO’s Ana Avendaño points out, “this turns jobs that are now held by permanent employees with rights and benefits into jobs filled by temporary, contract employees. It basically takes the jobs of millions of people out of the protections of the New Deal won by workers decades ago.”

—The Senate bill “vastly increases detention and deportation practices and further militarizes the border,” according to the New York-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. The Halliburton Corporation has already been given a U.S. contract for construction of immigrant detention facilities near the border with Mexico, and proposals have been made for reopening closed military bases to house deportees and detainees. The bill makes document fraud an aggravated felony and grounds for deportation, resulting in the criminalization of the millions of immigrants who have had to provide false Social Security cards to employers in order to get hired.

Stan Mark, AALDEF director, warned before passage of SB 2611 that “the upsurge in the mass movement will redefine this debate well into the elections if Congress passes their so-called ‘compromise’ of comprehensive immigration reform.” He calls instead for eliminating current laws penalizing lack of legal status, especially employer sanctions. “The political climate of the debate,” AALDEF says, “has converted this immigration bill into a Trojan horse into which lawmakers have crammed anti-immigrant and undemocratic policies.”

The NNIRR declaration, a set of principles enumerated by AALDEF, and similar programs put forward by groups outside of Washington all emphasize the need for positive, pro-immigrant alternatives. They include immediate legal status for the undocumented, easier family reunification and elimination of the backlog in processing visa applications, no guest worker programs, ending the indefinite detention of immigrants, restoring due process to immigration proceedings and an end to the militarization of the U.S. border with Mexico.

Since the Senate has approved a bill far removed from these principles, and the House has enacted an enforcement-only bill that is even more hostile to immigrants, immigrant rights advocates believe killing all current proposals is their only option.

David Bacon is an associate editor at New America Media and author of “The Children of NAFTA” (University of California Press, 2004). He sits on the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Committee of the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition.

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