By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007
A bipartisan proposal for comprehensive immigration reform that would allow millions of illegal immigrants to participate in a guest-worker program and possibly gain citizenship was introduced in the House yesterday, the first to be submitted since Democrats took control of Congress this year.
The proposal from Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) is a far cry from a measure passed by the Republican-controlled House in 2005 that focused on tough enforcement actions to reduce illegal immigration. The House bill died in a conference committee along with a competing Senate bill that was similar to the Flake-Gutierrez proposal.
Flake said the legislation is needed because current laws have failed to seal the border and to stop the hiring of illegal workers. "This bill addresses that problem by bolstering border security, increasing interior enforcement, and creating a temporary worker program that's enforceable and fair," he said.
Gutierrez acknowledged that opponents of guest-worker programs inside and outside the House will try to pick the bill apart. "I know that there are those out there already revving up their fax machines, ready to malign and mischaracterize this legislation," he said.
The bill seeks to clamp down on illegal border crossings from Mexico while allowing some illegal workers and their family members already in the United States to legally remain for up to six years if they pay a $1,000 fine for breaking the law and continuously hold a job.
Illegal immigrants who become guest workers could eventually become citizens if they have broken no additional laws, leave the country, return legally, pay a second $1,000 fine and become proficient English speakers.
Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration and guest-worker programs, called the legislation amnesty for lawbreaking foreigners.
"It's another attempt to change the color of the lipstick they keep putting on the pig," said Tancredo, who is exploring a run for president. "This color is no more attractive than the others they slathered on. It's a debacle."
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said the new bill will fail. "I don't think it has any more chance than the Senate bill did last year," he said. "The Democratic majority doesn't change things as much as you might think."
Even as congressional action on immigration is looming, a coalition of black civil rights groups including the National Urban League and the NAACP, and immigration advocates such as the National Council of La Raza and the National Immigration Law Center, is trying to hash out a proposal that would require employers to pay a fair wage to illegal workers and give them the same labor protections as American jobholders.
Once agreement is reached on the language of the proposal, activists say they will press congressional allies to attach the ideas to an immigration bill as it moves through the legislative process.
Proponents of the idea say it is an attempt to build bridges between civil rights organizations and immigration groups that would bring together the country's two largest minorities, Latinos and African Americans, groups that do not always agree when it comes to immigration.
"There's a sense that we want to work closely with the Latin American community, but we also want to talk about our concerns," said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.
As immigrants marched in Washington, Chicago, Phoenix, Dallas and Los Angeles last year, Morial said he was torn between an urge to advocate for immigrants and an urge to guard against the impact of illegal workers on black unemployment.
"There are serious problems that U.S.-born workers face at the low-wage end," said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, a group that assists a network of immigrant organizations. "If people expect support from African American leaders without addressing those concerns, then you are not going to have your expectations met."