Immigrant Rights Groups Split Over Senate Bill

By Anushka Asthana
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 28, 2006

Even as Congress is stalled over legislation dealing with the growing number of illegal immigrants, a split has emerged among pro-immigrant rights groups over whether to back the Senate measure, seen as the more lenient of the two bills being considered by lawmakers.

A number of the larger and more well-known organizations, such as the National Immigration Forum and the National Council of La Raza, back the Senate bill, albeit reluctantly. But a growing number of other liberal immigrant rights advocates, dismayed at what they say are onerous provisions of the Senate measure, are now saying they would prefer that Congress not enact an immigration law this year.

The split among pro-immigrant rights groups has the potential of complicating efforts by lawmakers to cobble together compromise legislation between the House and Senate versions, which some advocates say suits them just fine.

"Neither the House nor the Senate bill in current form can be effectively, fairly and wisely implemented," said Rick Swartz, a Washington lawyer who has often coordinated legislative efforts for pro-immigration groups. "Therefore, better no law than a bad law."

The Senate measure, sponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), contains a guest-worker program and provides a means for many illegal immigrants to gain citizenship. It is backed by President Bush but vilified by supporters of the House bill, which emphasizes tough enforcement of immigration laws.

But a number of liberal, pro-immigrant rights advocates said the Senate bill contains "dangerous" loopholes that could criminalize individuals, including legal immigrants, for helping family members or friends who are in the country illegally.

"So far, both bills do not meet the requirements we think are needed for successful reform," said Judith Golub, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a San Francisco-based organization that aims to advance immigrant rights. "While the Senate bill has some good provisions, it also has some that are fatally flawed."

John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, previously said he was deeply disappointed with the Senate bill: "This is not the time to start popping champagne corks."

Immigrant rights groups supporting the Senate measure acknowledged that it is flawed. But they said it is headed in the right direction and support it to head off enactment of the House bill.

"We have concerns, but this is a battle for the hearts and minds of the people," said Angela Kelley, deputy director at the National Immigration Forum. "First and foremost, the battle has to be won to put to bed the notion of enforcement first and enforcement alone. I want to make the Senate bill better, but I want to win the first battle before we begin the second."

Supporters such as the Immigration Forum and La Raza calculated that if they can beat back the House bill, they will be able to eliminate or soften provisions in the Senate bill they find objectionable. Michele Waslin, director of immigration policy research for La Raza, said her organization has "deep concerns with many of its provisions. We supported its passage, because it's important to advance the debate. But we understand that vast improvements will need to be made if it gets into law."

Immigrant rights advocates who oppose the Senate bill said they reached their conclusions after close scrutiny of the measure. A report from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center said that teachers could be prosecuted if they helped undocumented students, although this is an interpretation disputed by others.

Some fear that U.S. citizens or legal immigrants who have sent money to family members abroad that was used in an attempt to enter the United States illegally could find themselves facing criminal charges. Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office, said neither bill offered adequate safeguards for U.S. citizens and legal immigrants: "We have always thought both bills were bad. We think it is better to start from scratch."

Their opposition stems from the fact that both the Senate and the House reforms would make more people vulnerable to jail sentences for crimes that would normally be considered misdemeanors. Both expand the number of acts considered "aggravated felonies" for immigration purposes. This means that immigrants who have lived legally in the United States for decades could find themselves detained and deported for relatively minor crimes.

"The increasing criminalization of immigration law violations under either the Senate or the House bills raises many concerns from both a legal and a social policy perspective," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration law at Cornell Law School.

Some of the consequences of the Senate bill that Yale-Loehr pointed to include the fact that employers could face time in jail for omitting information from an employee's immigration form.

It would also limit, for the first time, the right of some U.S. citizens, who have committed certain sex offenses, such as statutory rape, to petition to obtain green cards for spouses or children. The bill also calls for long-unenforced law that says green-card holders could face detention if they did not fill a change-of-address card within 10 days of moving.

"People are looking at how the legislation impacts on the 12 million undocumented people. They should look at how this will affect the other 12 million legal residents," Golub said. "This not about enforcement; it is about eliminating due process, eliminating civil liberties."

Those who support tighter immigration controls said the people who are criticizing the bills want complete amnesty for illegal immigrants. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports more controls, said: "The Senate comes up with the most radical, anti-enforcement bill ever considered, and it is still not enough. These complaints are from people who want the Senate bill to be a pure amnesty, and any effort of combining that with tougher measures is odious to them."

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