Where Are Latino Elected Leaders in Immigration Reform Fight?
Mar 25, 2006
A controversial proposal on immigration reform which could allow more non-citizens legal entry to the United States as guest workers began taking shape in the U.S. Senate this past week.
“This is one of those interesting issues in which groups on the left and the right are working together, but for different reasons,” said Pedro Celis, chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, an offshoot of the Republican National Committee.
Celis recently met with Senate Republicans in order to advocate for the guest worker program, an idea also supported by a number of labor organizations and immigrant rights groups, who see it as one way to bring undocumented workers into society's mainstream.
Last Thursday, the Senate Judicial Committee announced it was close to approving the measure. However, many of its details have yet to be ironed out, and those details could prove to be a deal-breaker for some would-be supporters.
“We've seen how in the past those programs have been used to exploit workers,” said Alvaro Huerta, Director of Community Education and Advocacy for the Coalition of Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). “And we see some similar proposals in congress right now that send the message 'just come to work and leave; we only want you for your labor.'”
CHIRLA has come out in support of a version of the program put together by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) which would allow guest workers to petition for citizenship after four years of residency, and which does not make a guest worker's visa contingent upon remaining with his/her original employer.
As it currently stands, CHIRLA opposes the proposal put forth by California Senator Diane Feinstein, largely because Feinstein has suggested setting up a pilot program to address guest workers only in the agriculture sector.
“We're finding Senator Feinstein wants to take a piecemeal approach, and we don't think that's realistic,” Huerta said. “We're calling on Senator Feinstein to take a more proactive stance on immigration. California is the state with the largest immigrant population, and she needs to represent all California residents.”
But on an issue as potentially explosive as immigration reform, what's realistic is often in the eye of the beholder.
“(Any proposal that) tries to be too comprehensive right now will probably go down in defeat,” said Howard Gantman, Communications Director for Sen. Feinstein. “Rather than take it all on, here's a step we could take. A comprehensive approach coupled with what's going on in the House…that could all blow up.”
For months now, this issue has been coming to a boil in the House.
Seventy-one House members, all but one Republican, recently sent a letter to Judicial Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) warning that any bill including a guest worker provision would likely “doom any chance of a real reform bill reaching the president's desk this year.”
Last December, Republican Congressmen James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Peter King (R-NY) spearheaded passage of HR 4437, the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. Votes on the bill mainly lined up along party lines.
Widely criticized as an excessively punitive, enforcement only approach, HR 4437 transforms illegally entering the US from a misdemeanor to a felony, and under its provisions, individuals and charitable organizations who aid the undocumented can be criminally prosecuted and sentenced to up to five years in prison. The bill also calls for a 700 mile wall to be built along the Mexican/American border, while at the same time, it opened no new pathways to citizenship.
“(HR 4437) is bad policy,” said Celis. “It's viewed by the Hispanic community as a very nativist view. It's saying, we don't really want those 11 million people here, ever, at all.”
The fact that HR 4437 was able to pass the House has some here in LA concerned about what sort of compromise bill could ultimately come out of the Senate.
“We're a bit disappointed in California leadership,” said Huerta. “The House has seventy one members who are very anti-immigrant and very vocal in their agenda, and we don't have the same leadership on the other side.”
Congresswoman Grace Napolitano (D-CA 38), chairperson of The Hispanic Congressional Caucus, has signed on to co-sponsor HR 2330, a companion bill to McCain/Kennedy in the House, and her office says the Congresswoman is personally lobbying her colleagues in the Senate to adopt more comprehensive and balanced approach to reform. In the meantime, the Caucus as a whole also sent letters to Specter and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist outlining their opposition to HR 4437 and possible fixes.
Huerta says California's immigrant community is hoping for more, though.
“We need more of that,” Huerta said. “Aside from [San Fernando Valley] Congressman Howard Berman, who has been great on our issues, there's been a silence from some of our legislators that's really shocking for California. We're seeing states like Illinois and Arizona leading the charge.”
One Washington D.C. source who asked to remain anonymous told EGP, “Many of our Latino leaders say they are doing things, but the truth is they are scared, they sign their names but do little to really lobby and push.
“They just don't have the power, even though they have the numbers, and because they are Latinos, they have told me 'we can't get out in front on this because then it will be just another Latino issue.'”
But in Illinois, Democratic Congressman and member of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus Luis Gutierrez worked with local groups and Spanish language media in Chicago to stage a massive rally on March 10 protesting HR 4437. It is estimated a diverse crowd of over 100,000 people attended the event.
This weekend, CHIRLA-along with some 20 religious groups, labor unions and immigrant rights organizations- are co-sponsoring two Los Angeles events protesting the bill. Thousands converged downtown on Saturday at a march on city hall. A rally is also planned for Sunday in front of the Federal Building, followed by a mass honoring the memory of Cesar Chavez as well as West Coast farm workers.
“Hardly any (California politicians) have taken leadership in the organizing of this mass protest,” said Javier Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the march's organizers. “We don't have one single congressperson helping us, and this should be their baby.”
“California's Latino leadership has been pathetic on the issue,” adds Rodriguez.
Rodriguez says it's local politicians, such as State Senator Gil Cedillo and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who have come forward to offer funds and other tangible assistance.
According to their press offices, however, both Congresswoman Hilda Solis and Xavier Becerra said they planned to attend this weekend's protests, and Becerra's office points out that in addition to hosting citizen workshops in the past, the Congressman spoke earlier this month at an anti-HR 4437 rally in Washington D.C. Furthermore, Becerra's spokesman said, the Congressman has a number of interviews lined up in the coming weeks to speak out publicly on the issue.
For right now, Huerta says, with their upcoming march and rally, the immigrants rights community is sending a clear message back to all law makers.
“We want to send the message to our legislators that enough is enough, they've played politics with this issue long enough. We need real solutions,” Huerta said.
EGP staff reports were used in this story.
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