Feb. 15, 2006- Workers step from shadows On Independence Mall, illegal immigrants rallied against crackdown. By Gaiutra Bahadur Inquirer StaffWriter
Like most illegal immigrants, Juan Garcia does not usually court attention.
But yesterday afternoon, within yards of Philadelphia police and members of a border-control vigilante group, the undocumented factory worker from Mexico stood on Independence Mall among 1,000 protesters waving Latin American flags and signs that read, in Spanish, "We are workers, not terrorists."
The rally was designed to draw attention to a congressional proposal, called draconian by immigrant activists, that would crack down on illegal residents, their employers, and churches, charities and other groups that help them.
Organizers of the event, part of the larger "A Day Without an Immigrant" protest, also called for a Valentine's Day labor strike by the region's undocumented workers - particularly Mexicans, described as crucial to the Center City restaurant industry.
The holiday is the second-most-popular day of the year for dining out, according to the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association. (Mother's Day is the most popular.)
Immigrant advocates hope to convince restaurateurs that they have a stake in scuttling H.R. 4437, or the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005.
The bill, drafted by Reps. James Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.) and Peter King (R., N.Y.) and passed by the House in December, is one of several rival immigration-related proposals that the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider in the next month.
"I came here only to work," said Garcia, the factory worker. He sends at least a fifth of his $1,000 in monthly wages to his family, sugar-cane farmers in Veracruz. "The bill mistreats us," he said.
Illegal immigrants, who now face deportation but no criminal charges if apprehended, would be felons punishable by prison time under the Border Protection Act.
The act would increase fines against employers who hire illegal workers, in some cases by tens of thousands of dollars per violation. It also would classify as "alien smugglers" employers who knowingly and "with reckless disregard" hire immigrants.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) said in a statement yesterday that the Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, was preparing a compromise bill that would reach the full Senate by the end of March.
"We need the workforce which immigrants provide," he said in the statement. "But we have to... protect our borders so that we're not infiltrated by terrorists."
Late yesterday afternoon, a steakhouse owner near Rittenhouse Square said that only one of his workers had heeded the call for a strike by the beginning of the dinner shift.
The employee asked him to write Specter expressing his disapproval of the Border Protection Act. The restaurant owner agreed to lobby the senator.
The strike was designed to give undocumented "shadow workers," a population typically on tiptoe, an opportunity to show their faces, their numbers, and their economic contributions to the region.
Medina, who declined to give his first name because he is an illegal immigrant, showed his support by attending the rally and staying away from the Cherry Hill restaurant where he is a cook.
"The bill says immigrants are delinquents," said the 25-year-old, who supports a wife and toddler, also in the United States. "I came to work because in my country, we don't have the opportunities like here."
There is no reliable figure for the illegal-immigrant population of the Philadelphia region. Regan Cooper, director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, puts the number at 60,000 to 70,000, from countries including Ireland, Brazil, China and Indonesia.
Nationwide, Mexicans dominate the numbers and the debate. Since 2000, the Mexican population in Philadelphia has tripled to about 7,500, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Mexican groceries and taquerias now dot the Italian Market.
Many of the immigrants are from the same town, San Mateo, in the Mexican state of Puebla. From rowhouses in South Philadelphia, they walk or bicycle the same path every day to jobs in Center City.
The Border Protection Act would classify churches, charities, social-service agencies and other groups that help these immigrants as smugglers.
At a news conference at archdiocese headquarters yesterday, Cardinal Justin Rigali and a group of interfaith leaders spoke out against these provisions and called for "a more just national policy that cares for the stranger in our midst."
The archdiocese's vicar for Latinos said parishes regionwide are astonished that the medical help, food, and occasional financial assistance they provide would brand them as criminals.
"It's scary for people doing what they believe our Gospel would encourage us to do," Msgr. Hugh Joseph Shields, the vicar, said in an interview.
The archdiocese, the National Restaurant Association, and faith and immigrant-advocacy groups support alternative legislation, drafted by Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.), that ultimately would allow undocumented immigrants to become legal residents.
As the immigrants and their supporters gathered between noon and 2 p.m. in front of the Constitution Center, members of the Minutemen, a vigilante border-control group that started in the Southwest, and others opposed to illegal immigration held a counter-rally across the street, in front of the Liberty Bell.
Illegal immigrants "are a drain on resources, on taxpayers," said John Ryan, 57, of Quakertown, a retired telephone company worker who heads the Pennsylvania chapter of the Minutemen. He and five others held signs that read "Hiring Illegals Is a Crime Against American Workers."
To read the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, go to http://go.philly.com/immigrationact
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