By David Bacon
Pacific News Service

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (5/25/06) -- When the US Senate today passed its version of "comprehensive immigration reform," Senators from both sides of the aisle claimed that despite the enormous controversy it has generated, passing a bill with flaws was better than passing no bill at all. Outside 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 a bill that reconciles the proposal just passed by the Senate, and that passed last December in the House of Representatives.

In a statement condemning the Hagel-Martinez compromise, S 2611, the proposal that just passed on Thursday, a national group of immigrant rights advocates convened by the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights argued Wednesday 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 provisions of the Senate bill, which they say will make immigrants much worse off than they are even at present. Those include:

-- Under the Hagel-Martinez legalization plan, undocumented immigrants with less than two years in the US (about a million people) would be immediately subject to deportation. Those with two to five years would also have to leave the country, and could apply to reenter through some currently unknown process. The ability of border stations to handle the applications of the 3-4 million people involved is extremely doubtful, given the current years-long backlog in normal visa applications.

-- S 2611, like HR 4437 passed by the House in December, would ramp up the enforcement of employer sanctions. This provision of current law makes it a crime for undocumented people to hold a job, and is used frequently by employers 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 current Basic Pilot program, which moves in this direction, has shown the SSA database to be rife with errors.

-- The Senate bill expands current guest worker programs and establishes new ones, 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 which 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 labor federation points out that if currently undocumented workers and new immigrants were given permanent residence status instead of temporary visas, they would be able to exercise their rights as workers and community residents.

-- S 2611 "vastly increases detention and deportation, 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 US 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, which makes document fraud an aggravated felony and grounds for deportation, would result in the criminalization of the millions of immigrant workers who have had to provide false Social Security cards to employers in order to get hired.

Stan Mark, AALDEF director, warned before passage of S 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," the AALDEF leader says, "has converted this immigration bill into a Trojan horse into which lawmakers have crammed anti-immigrant and undemocratic policies."

The NNIRR declaration, a similar set of principles enumerated by AALDEF, and other programs put forward by groups outside 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 expansion of guest worker programs, ending the indefinite detention of immigrants, restoring due process to immigration proceedings, and, instead of the new walls Congress wants to build, ending the militarization of the US border with Mexico.

Since the Senate has approved a bill far removed from these principles, and the House passed an enforcement-only HR 4437 even more hostile to immigrants, immigrant rights advocates believe killing all current proposals is their only option.

That might in fact be the outcome of efforts to reconcile the House and Senate bills, since the most conservative House Republicans oppose any legal status for the undocumented. "It is possible that a reconciliation between HR 4437 and S 2611 will not happen in the conference committee," speculates Evelyn Sanchez of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. "Should this happen, we will have time to continue pushing for real and fair comprehensive immigration reform. If HR 4437 and S 2611 are successfully reconciled, and the President signs the bill into law, then we have the task of overturning that law."

This is a grim scenario, but despite it, advocates are unwilling to give up. "It's been done before." she says.

David Bacon, Photographs and Stories