Immigration Frustration: Local Groups Reject Senate Compromise

National immigrant lobbying groups rejoiced earlier this month when members of the Senate Judiciary Committee reportedly reached a tentative agreement to include a guestworker program and conditional legalization for some undocumented immigrants in the Committee’s final immigration bill.

“The Committee made a decisive move towards creating sound policy,” wrote the Washington, DC-based National Immigration Forum (NIF), in a press release. It is “a dramatic step forward towards a comprehensive approach to immigration reform.”

However, a wide range of grassroots worker and immigrant advocacy groups in New York City are rejecting the current proposals before Congress, including the rumored compromise now before the Judiciary Committee. While most local groups embrace provisions to legalize undocumented immigrants and reunite immigrant families, they say other parts of the bills will simply make life harder for non-citizens. The proposals, the groups say, fail to adequately protect workers’ rights, and are too strict on border control, and threaten to increase jailing and deportations.

The Senate proposals mean “more walls, more personnel, [and] more funding for detention,” said Kavitha Pawria, Legal and Policy Organizer of Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM), one of about 20 pro-immigrant groups that make up the Immigrant Communities In Action (ICIA) coalition.

Instead of supporting the McCain-Kennedy bill like its DC counterparts, ICIA has adopted a platform that calls on Congress to add to any pending legislation “human and civil rights protections by reducing detention and deportation, ending collaboration between the [Department of Homeland Security] and public agencies…and ending deaths and abuses of migrants at the borders.” They are also asking for “Equal protection of labor rights [for] all immigrant workers.”

A separate coalition called Break the Chains includes New York immigrant and worker advocacy organizations like National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS), Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association (CSWA), and Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), has also criticized the current Congressional proposals and is trying to shift the national debate. Instead of a guestworker program, it’s urging a repeal of “employer sanctions”—penalties for hiring undocumented workers.

Meanwhile, however, the legislation rolls forward. If the Judiciary Committee votes a bill to the full Senate this week, the legislation would still be competing with a number of other proposals, including a measure from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist that would increase grounds for deportation, fund an additional 4,400 border patrol agents and contains no provision for legalizing undocumented workers.

Any Senate bill that gets approved will have to be reconciled with HR 4437, introduced by Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and passed by the House of Representatives in December. That bill focuses on increased policing, jailing, and deportation both at the border and in the interior, prompting massive protests in Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix, Milwaukee and other cities over the past two weeks. Among other provisions, the House bill would make being undocumented a felony and assisting an undocumented immigrant a crime.

“Obviously, we all need to defend against [bad legislation],” said Benita Jain, a staff attorney with the Immigrant Defense Project of the New York State Defenders Association (NSYDA), a group that serves as a legal resource to criminal defense attorneys, advocates, and immigrants fighting detention and deportation and is not part of either coalition. “But the proactive agenda needs to include fixing the 1996 laws that vastly expanded the grounds for detention and deportation of immigrants.”

George Tzamaras, director of communications at American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), believes that local groups may be asking for too much in a difficult political climate. “We very much understand that McCain-Kennedy isn’t a perfect bill…but [it] gives pro-immigrant organizations a foundation, so in the near future we can advocate for those other items.”

Jei Fong, staff organizer with CSWA, disagrees. “The real function that all these bills are serving is to create this atmosphere of fear, [to say] that there’s no point in really demanding anything, that it’s not possible in this political climate,” she said. “The more…these national groups give into that, the whole debate just shifts to the right.”