Sides forming in next immigration-reform push

Published on December 29th, 2009

Immigration-reform legislation has backing of 92 Democrats — but no Republicans.

By Matt O’Brien
Contra Costa Times

SAN FRANCISCO — The prospect of millions of illegal immigrants earning a path to citizenship is now back on the table in Congress, though the first bill out of the chute has already split some California progressives and has zero support from Republicans.

Bay Area immigrant families and their allies rallied Friday at a San Francisco high school to promote legalization and other measures that would overhaul U.S. immigration policy, which has not substantially changed for more than a decade.

They were united in favor of a humanitarian approach to reforming immigration policy, though disagreed on the finer details of a 650-page reform bill introduced last week by 92 liberal Democratic lawmakers, including four from the Bay Area.

At its crux, the bill introduced by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., would allow people living in the U.S. without legal documents to pay a $500 fee and show they made contributions to the U.S. through work, school, volunteering or military service. After six years on a conditional visa, those who qualify can get a green card and eventually obtain citizenship.

The bill is designed in part to put pressure on President Barack Obama, who has pledged to take on immigration reform next year and has advocated an overhaul that would include a path to citizenship. Opponents have characterized the bill as permissive and doomed to fail.

That is a longer process than the last time the United States legalized immigrants in 1986, a move that then-President Ronald Reagan asserted would "improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society."

This time, however, there are millions more immigrants living in the country illegally, rising populist anger over joblessness and demographic change, and a belief among the inheritors of Reagan’s conservative movement that amnesty for lawbreaking only encourages more.

"This is cynical legislation because there’s no chance this is going to get passed," said Novato resident Rick Oltman of Californians for Population Stabilization. "Given all the difficulties they’re having right now with the health care bill, and with the president’s popularity falling in the polls, there’s no chance they’re going to pass this because it has no support from the American people."

The bill would also include enforcement provisions, though conservatives say not nearly enough. Immigrant advocates, in turn, say it is too focused on enforcement.

"It continues to treat immigration as a national security issue and stops short of doing away with some of the biggest problems in our current immigration system," said Colin Rajah of the Oakland-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

In promoting the bill, Gutierrez wrote in the Huffington Post that "it legalizes five percent of the workforce; it eliminates the guesswork in hiring through a smart and dependable employment verification system; and it eradicates the need for localities to take matters into their own hands by requiring businesses and landlords to check IDs of their clients and tenants."

What the measure is missing, so far, is support from key House Democrats who would have to negotiate a workable immigration bill next year with conservative Democrats and Republicans. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, has indicated she would rather have the Senate move first on immigration, while House immigration leader Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, has not made any comment on Gutierrez’s plan.

Seventeen of the 34 Democrats in California’s congressional delegation have co-sponsored the bill, including Bay Area lawmakers Rep. Mike Honda, D-Campbell; Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont; and Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma.

Not listed as a sponsor was Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, but he said in a statement that introducing the bill "represents a positive step forward in the debate to fix our nation’s broken immigration system." Miller said he was pleased the bill includes legislation he introduced to end abuses of foreign guest workers by putting more restrictions on the employers who hire them.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, was still reviewing the bill, but aides said he supports comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship. Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, had no comment.

Immigrant advocates hope the bill, even if it is unlikely to pass in its current form, sets a pro-immigrant tone early in the debate and puts the onus on Obama to make it a priority. Young immigrants and the U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrants expressed a sense of urgency at the Friday evening rally at Mission High School.

"I am doing this to help my mom and my sister and my family and other undocumented students who are suffering," said a 20-year-old Oakland college student who did not want to give his name because he fears deportation.

The family arrived from South Korea when he was 12, and the student said he did not know he was here on an expired visa until he began applying for schools and a driver’s license as a high school senior. An act of Congress, he said, is his chance to stay.

"Two million undocumented immigrants are Asian, and I’m one of them," he said. "It’s really crucial to me for this bill to be passed. This is the only thing I’m relying on, depending on."

Though many advocates disagreed over various parts the bill, they put aside some of those quarrels to counter what is likely to be a bigger obstacle: The conventional wisdom that high unemployment in California and across the country makes the bill or anything like it politically untenable.

"The problem is not immigrants. The problem is poverty, trade agreements that increase that poverty, the criminalization of work," said East Bay immigrant rights activist and author David Bacon. "No immigrants shut down the NUMMI plant (in Fremont). The economic problems we have in this country are not the fault of immigrants."

key proposals in democrats’ immigration reform bill The Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act, introduced last week by Congressional Democrats, would overhaul the nation’s immigration policies. Among the provisions:

  • Grants conditional nonimmigrant visas to undocumented immigrants who have made "contributions" to the U.S. through employment, education, military service or other community service. The visas would be issued for an application fee and a $500 fine.
  • Allows those brought to the U.S. before age 16 to also qualify for the visas, although the fines would be waived. Individual states would decide if undocumented students could pay in-state tuition rates at local colleges.
  • Creates an employment verification system to ensure all new hires are legally able to work in the U.S.
  • Enhances border security and immigration enforcement.
  • Expands restrictions on employers who recruit legal temporary workers.
    Source: Immigration Policy Center

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