By Elena Shore
New America Media
SAN FRANCISCO Immigrant rights groups, who came down on different sides of the immigration reform bill that failed in the Senate, agree on one thing: things are going to get worse before they get better.
The Senate’s failure to move the immigration bill forward Thursday effectively put off the possibility of immigration reform until 2009.
“Today the Senate voted for the status quo,” says Michele Waslin, director of immigration policy research at the National Council of La Raza in Washington, D.C. Except the status quo may have changed in the last few years, activists say, as raids, detentions and deportations have increased nationally, and more cities and states across the country enact anti-immigrant legislation.
Without immigration reform legislation on the table, Rich Stolz, immigration co-team leader at the Center for Community Change, expects the country will see more anti-immigrant ordinances passed by local governments. These ordinances, he says, are among the biggest threats to the civil rights of immigrants. “America will become a police state for anyone who looks or sounds like an immigrant,” warns CCC’s Fair Immigration Reform Movement in a statement Thursday.
Others worry about who will bear the brunt of Americans’ frustration with an obviously broken immigration system. “I am concerned that this frustration may be vented on undocumented immigrants, not just with raids but with increased local initiatives that are anti-immigrant. That is the unfortunate price that we pay,” says Karen Narasaki, executive director of Washington’s Asian American Justice Center.
While the Asian American Justice Center was concerned about many provisions in the Senate bill, such as the curtailment of family reunification, they had hoped the House version could address them. “But since the Senate failed to act, we weren’t given an opportunity,” says Narasaki.
Meanwhile, the increase in raids, detentions and deportations affects all undocumented immigrants and their families, adds Kerri Sherlock, director of policy and planning at the Rights Working Group in Washington, D.C., which lobbied to make sure the Senate bill respected due process for undocumented immigrants in deportation proceedings.
“As long as we fail to enact reform, people will try to take reform into their own hands,” says Sherlock, who describes “poorly managed detention facilities” as “one of the worst human rights violations of our country.”
Undocumented immigrants and their families aren’t the only ones who are affected by anti-immigrant sentiment, says Waslin of NCLR. “The right wing media has demonized immigrants and all Latinos. It goes well beyond the undocument-ed.”
Hamid Khan, executive director of the Los Angeles-based South Asian Network, a 17-year-old grassroots, community-based organization, agrees. “The post-9/11 crimi-nalization of certain ethnic groups will continue,” he says, worrying that if the status quo continues, racial profiling of South Asians and Middle Easterners will continue under the guise of national security and “heavy-handed enforcement” of immigration laws.
The immigrant rights groups that wanted the Senate bill to move forward did not hide their disappointment.
“It’s been a tough day for us,” NCLR’s Waslin says. Those who took part in the immigrant rights marches across the country this year and last year saw a real opportunity to come out of the shadows, she says. “The community itself is devastated. People have poured their hearts and souls into this.”
Organizations that opposed the Senate bill tried to find a silver lining of opportunity in its failure.
Arnoldo Garcia, enforcement and justice program coordinator for the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Oakland, Calif., said the bill’s failure is “not a victory, but it’s not a setback.”
“For community organizations, nothing changes,” Garcia says. “We’ll keep fighting.”
But Joren Lyons, staff attorney for San Francisco’s Asian Law Caucus, which opposed the bill, says he was “not sorry to see it die today.” The Law Caucus had objected to the Senate bill’s attempts to restrict family-based immigration. “The Senate was trying to destroy the way immigration worked for the last four decades,” says Lyons, pointing out that the main source of growth for the Asian community is immigration. “To suddenly scrap family immigration retroactively was really quite shocking.”
Though many organizations like the Washington, D.C.-based League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) did not get behind the “grand bargain” of the bipartisan Senate bill, Communications Director Lizette J. Olmos says LULAC was disappointed by the bill’s failure in the Senate especially since measures they supported, like the DREAM Act, went down with it. “We lost the battle but not the war,” she says.
Some organizations are looking to the House now for leadership. “For a long time, the House has been saying that they need the Senate to act first,” says Eun Sook Lee, executive director of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC) in Los Angeles. “The House should no longer hide behind the Senate.”
But most of the attention is turning to the 2008 presidential race. Immigration advocates say the immigration debate has proven to be so toxic, presidential candidates will shy away from the issue in their campaigns even though the next president will have to deal with it.
What the bill’s failure means for the prospects of Democrats and Republicans in the upcoming elections is not yet clear.
“The Republicans were only able to deliver a paltry number of votes,” says Angela Kelley, deputy director of Washington’s National Immigration Forum, which supported the bill. “And they are going to have to wake up and smell the coffee tomorrow. They cannot just tuck this issue away. They have made a pact with the devil but it’s not sustainable for the party.”
But for Garcia of the NNIRR, neither party was concerned enough with how to protect the rights of the foreign-born. “The failure to move the bill falls right in the lap of both parties,” says Garcia. He predicts that any immigration bill that will come out of Congress in the near future will likely be an enforcement-only bill, about the only thing both parties can agree on. “I don’t think a Democratic president and Democrat-majority congress is the answer. Some of the most repressive laws, the 1996 laws, were passed under Clinton’s administration.”
But many advocates agree that as immigrants face a future of enforcement without legalization, the movement for immigrants’ rights becomes more important than ever.
“This country’s future is at stake,” the CCC announced Thursday. “The anger and disappointment we feel today is the fuel and energy to continue our fight tomorrow.”
Elena Shore is an editor for New America Media. Additional reporting by Eugenia Chien, Julie Johnson, Peter Micek, Sandip Roy and Viji Sundaram.