December 2, 2005

Rights Advocates See Tough, Long Fight Over Immigration

By Rene Ciriz-Cruz

Debate over immigration, while currently heating up, may take a decade to resolve. Most officials today view immigration policy mainly through a national security lens.

These are just some insights from two top immigrant rights advocates who recently gave ethnic media journalists a special briefing on the immigration debate in the nation’s capital.

“Talk radio hosts and politicians say most Americans are anti-immigration. That’s not true. Americans are divided on whether immigration is good for the country,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of National Immigration Forum, a key immigration policy group based in Washington, D.C.

Sharry said his group’s poll showed 12 percent of Americans want to stop immigration and 10 percent want to expand it.

“But 80 percent are undecided, with a big portion not well-informed about the issue, and while many Americans are frustrated by the immigration problem, 75 percent want to do something smart about it,” Sharry added.

One big problem, said Margaret Zaknoen, is that “most policy makers are looking at immigration as a national security and enforcement matter.”

Zaknoen is advocacy coordinator of the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition, an umbrella for 50 local organizations of mostly low-income, immigrant communities.

“An enforcement-only policy won’t work,” said Sharry. “The biggest increase in enforcement resulted in the biggest increase in illegal immigration in the last 20 years. Without a path to legalization for the 11 million undocumented, no policy will work,” he added.

The two spoke before Asian and Latino reporters in an ethnic media briefing hosted by New California Media.

Both Zaknoen and Sharry concurred that there was an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Sharry believes, however, that it has settled back to a pre-Sept. 11 level.

“Candidates who play the anti-immigrant card in next year’s Congressional elections may be in for a rude surprise,” Sharry predicted.

He said the Republicans’ anti-immigrant platform in the recent Virginia gubernatorial election backfired on their losing candidate. “There’s some room for optimism,” he added.

Sharry notes that both the Republican and Democratic parties are divided by the issue. “I’m looking at a 3 to 10 year debate over immigration before the immigration issue gets resolved,” he said.

Sharry’s group supports the bipartisan Senate bill sponsored by senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). The bill calls for legalization of undocumented immigrants, a stepped up family reunification program to ease the backlog, a guest worker program that lets workers change jobs and apply for permanent residency after four years, better border control and employer verification.

“Without legalization, the undocumented won’t come out of the shadows,” Sharry said. “A bill that says they should go back home before being legalized won’t make them come out.”

Zaknoen said her coalition’s constituents want permanent residency for the undocumented, faster family reunification, protection of worker rights and no expanded enforcement.

“We realize that immigration reform may fall short of these aspirations given that we’re on the defensive, just trying to stop bad things from being implemented,” Zaknoen said.

Her group has “reservations” about the McCain-Kennedy bill because “we don’t think any guest worker program will be beneficial to the worker.”

“Strengthened enforcement will only bring more repression, as it is 460 migrants have already died trying to cross the border last year,” Zaknoen added.

Zaknoen’s group is in favor of Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s bill in the House of Representatives. It calls for amnesty and legalization for all undocumented immigrants, no guest worker programs and increased protection and services for immigrants.

“We don’t see her bill as competing with McCain-Kennedy,” Zaknoen clarified, “but we see it as a way to strengthen the other bills.”

Bills passed by the Senate and the House must be reconciled by a conference committee representing both floors to produce an act of Congress.

Sharry thinks “the best defense is offense.”

“It is important,” Sharry said, “to have a bipartisan, workable, fair and practical policy because to propose that we deport 11 million immigrants or ask them to go home is impractical and unworkable,” he said.

Wendy Rockett contributed to this story.

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