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2000-12-06

Congress to Vote on Amnesty for Undocumented Immigrants

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White House officials and Republican congressional leaders are nearing an agreement on a proposed amnesty for around 1 million undocumented immigrants who have been in the country at least 15 years. But they remain divided over President Clinton’s proposal to include more refugees from Haiti and Central America. Members of the Hispanic Caucus met yesterday with the president’s team to push for the amnesty. [includes rush transcript]

The thorniest problem remains a Democratic proposal to offer permanent residence to refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti. The goal is to achieve parity with Cuban and Nicaraguan refugees, who face an easier threshold to become permanent residents. Republicans, led by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, oppose this measure.

This decision will be especially felt on the border with Mexico, where beefed up controls by the border patrol, the INS and the National Guard continue to affect people’s everyday lives. Hundreds of people are gathering this week on the border in Douglas, Arizona, for a major human rights conference.

Guests:

  • Isabel Garcia, Attorney and Director of Pima County Legal Defender’s Office. Speaking from Douglas, Arizona.
  • Father Robert Carney, parish priest in Douglas, Arizona, the number one border crossing spot on the U.S.- Mexico border.
  • Rick Altman, Western Field Director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Related link:

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: White House officials and Republican congressional leaders are nearing an agreement on a proposed amnesty for around one million undocumented immigrants who have been in the country at least fifteen years. But they remain divided over President Clinton’s proposal to include more refugees from Haiti and Central America. Members of the Hispanic Caucus met yesterday with the President’s team to push for the amnesty.

The thorniest problem remains a Democratic proposal to offer permanent residence to refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti. The goal is to achieve parity with Cuban and Nicaraguan refugees, who face an easier threshold to become permanent residents. Republicans, led by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, oppose this measure.

This decision will be especially felt on the border with Mexico, where beefed up controls by the Border Patrol, the INS and the National Guard continue to affect people’s everyday lives. Hundreds of people are gathering this week on the border in Douglas, Arizona, for a major human rights conference. Among those is Isabel Garcia, attorney and director of Pima County Legal Defender’s Office, speaking to us from Douglas. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Isabel Garcia.

ISABEL GARCIA: Good morning. And I’m talking to you from Tucson [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: From Tucson. Tell us what as at issue in Congress now.

ISABEL GARCIA: Well, for us, we believe that in addition to the very important pieces of legislation dealing with amnesty, dealing with the Central American situation, those of us at the border intend to press upon the Congress to reevaluate a border policy that is resulting in the deaths of hundreds along the border, in record number of deaths. And so, for us, we will not be satisfied alone with the issue of amnesty and dealing, of course, with the problems that immigrants face once they’re in the country, but we are going to very deliberately and very openly really begin to question in a big way the public policy that is militarizing this border, as we speak.

Yesterday, day before yesterday, they brought in twenty soldiers as part of Joint Task Force 6 to continue with their "reinforcement" of the border. If people could see photographs of what that means, they would think we are at war with Mexico. And so, for us, that is a human rights crisis that we are facing and that we will continue to face, because this new fence, this wall, this steel-matted wall, is being extended another two miles in Douglas. For us and for the immigrants, that means that they have absolutely no way to receive any kind of human assistance, no way to be near and urban or a town — urbanized area or a town, and, in fact, they’ve got to trek out four or five miles into the desert, into the mountains, where they face their death, and sometimes they face hostile ranchers and other folk. And so, for us, that’s going to be a key issue that we intend to bring to Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of the wall, there is a call from the Department of Prisons to build more prisons in southern Arizona and California to hold undocumented border crossers, many of them referred to as "low-security criminal aliens." Can you talk about this?

ISABEL GARCIA: Yes. In fact, we have recently been apprised that there is a proposition, a resolution in the town of Wilcox. I mean, yes, we’ve got small communities, small towns that have economic — they’re economically repressed. And so they feel that when there’s federal dollars dangling — and this is a very difficult situation for us — when they dangle huge federal dollars, of course, the community, the politicians, of course, in particular, are very eager to attempt to have those built in those communities.

But we are also very concerned with the growth, of course, of the prison industry as a whole. As a criminal defense attorney, I am very alarmed at the growing rate of the prisons across the country, but in particular, in regards to this issue, we’re very concerned about these joint operations between Bureau of Prisons and these private corporations and INS that are coming together to build more and more prisons to house more and more Mexicanos in particular. This is an alarming situation for us. We are criminalizing whole sectors of our community, anybody who’s documented and is caught and is charged with illegal entries, illegal re-entries, false papers, transporting an undocumented person that can be your companions or your family members, and on and on. We have a whole slate of criminal immigration violations that are just flooding the federal district courts and system along the border.

And, of course, responding to that, a burgeoning caseload of new criminals, we need new prisons. That’s what they believe, that we need new prisons. And so we believe it’s an alarming situation, and we hope to address those issues, as well, at our summit this coming weekend.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Garcia, attorney and director of the Pima County Legal Defender’s Office, speaking to us from Tucson. Rick Altman also joins us, Western Field Director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, known as FAIR. Your group has put out radio ads around the country against the amnesty bill that’s being debated right now in Congress. Why?

RICK ALTMAN: Well, we oppose amnesty, because it’s more than simply a forgiving of somebody who has broken our laws. It’s actually forgiving them and then giving them a reward. And the reward is is that they get to stay in the country that they didn’t respect enough to come here legally in the first place.

But before we go any further than that, I want to go back to Douglas on the border for a minute and sort of respond to some things Ms. Garcia has said. First of all, it’s not immigrants who are dying. It’s illegal aliens. And it’s important that we make the distinction between those who come to our country legally and those who sneak into our country illegally. And that’s who we’re trying to stop at the border.

The National Guard is on the border not in an attempt to militarize the border, but simply to build this fence, to continue to build this fence, so that the illegal aliens won’t be able to sneak across the border in Douglas, in Naco, and continue to do that.

Now, it is a problem in Douglas, which is in Cochise County, because this year it’s expected that three million illegal aliens will sneak across the border in Cochise County. And the drug trafficking is so bad that almost the entire state of Arizona is now a high-intensity drug-trafficking area. And it’s so bad that the sheriff of Cochise County has sent a letter to the governor of Arizona, Jane Hull, asking her to send the National Guard to the border to help the Border Patrol protect the border from these — this invasion. Also, the Cochise County Board of Supervisors has also sent a letter to Jane Hull saying please send the National Guard down to assist the Border Patrol to stop these illegal aliens from crossing the border.

So it’s important to understand the situation on the border. These people are not immigrants. They are illegal aliens. And with them come drug traffickers and criminal that add to our problem. The reason we have to build more prisons is 30% of our prison population nationwide is foreign-born. So what we need to do is to look to take care of this country and defend the border, which is what any reasonable country in the world would do. And that’s the reason why you’re seeing these calls for help along the border.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break for stations to identify themselves. When we come back, we’ll also be joined by Father Robert Carney, who is a parish priest in Douglas, Arizona, the number one border-crossing spot on the US-Mexico border. Our guests, Rick Altman from the Federation for American Immigration Reform and Isabel Garcia with the Pima County Legal Defender’s Office, speaking to us from Tucson.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: As Congress right now debates the issue of undocumented immigrants, we’re talking to Isabel Garcia of the Pima County Legal Defender’s Office in Tucson, Rick Altman, the Western Field Director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and now Father Robert Carney, parish priest in Douglas, Arizona. I just wanted to start off, Father Robert Carney, by you responding to Rick Altman’s distinction between immigrants who are dying and making the clarification that, no, these are illegal aliens.

FATHER ROBERT CARNEY: I am still stunned by that, because I see the faces of not illegal aliens, but I see the faces of women terrified, children, men, only seeking to survive. In fact, they have faced land disputes in their own country, economically depressed areas, drought, whatever might be going on. The reasons that people are leaving their home is not because they want to come north to take advantage of a system.

The deaths along the border must be made known to the American public that — we’re a small town, under 18,000. And I have seen more death here in this town than I’ve ever witnessed anywhere I’ve been. And it is because of INS policy to bottleneck this area by closing off San Diego and closing off in Texas that has caused this great influx of people coming through the Douglas area. That was in plan years ago. And I think it was also in that planning, I believe now, that there was an awareness that people would die in this somewhat desolate area, a very difficult passage through very dry. And during the summer, many die during the summer. And now, many are dying in the winter. The nights are bitter down here.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the Special Incident Response Team presumably responding to rock-throwing against Border Patrol agents, the team instructed to fire off explosives into the Mexican side of the border and to use stun-gun technology against rock-throwers?

FATHER ROBERT CARNEY: It’s an immediate, very quick escalation of the militarization along our border. I see similarities that are taking place in other parts of the world, where high-tech weapons and other kinds of techniques are used against people. Throwing rocks, yeah, it can be dangerous. Somebody’s going to be hurt. But I believe that throwing explosive devices into our neighboring country will cause much, much more violence along the border.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you suppose when Congress is considering amnesty, presumably admitting to a shortage in cheap labor, is the wall, the border, being extended and militarized?

FATHER ROBERT CARNEY: I think that, as far as the Catholic Church’s social justice teachings, and we ask caution about skilled labor being allowed that amnesty and forgetting about the campesino, the farm worker, those who are the least seen and I think the least addressed people who come from nothing and then have nothing when they arrive, but have a tremendously high work ethic. Every person I have met, literally, in six years, every person I have met, has said to me, in some form or another, "I want to be reunited with my family, and all I want to do is get back to work."

And I see the faces of people who are facing starvation and facing a hostile paramilitary control in their own country, some of which that this nation has supported and been the cause of through training such as the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. We have a responsibility, I believe, to these people.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick Altman, can you respond to that, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform?

RICK ALTMAN: Well, I’ve also seen the people that have come across. I’ve been there when they’ve been apprehended. And we’re certainly sympathetic. But they’re not starving. And it’s important that we don’t overstate the situation here. In terms of death, obviously the deaths are — it’s sad to have deaths at the border. But the fact is these people have made their own decision to try to sneak into our country. And if they’ve made the decision to come through very inhospitable areas, the final responsibility does lie with them. And it’s a shame to have deaths.

And I just have to say that the Border Patrol has gone out of its way to go out and rescue many people. Far more people have been rescued than have died. And I’m not sure of the number, but I think over the last ten years, the number is around a couple hundred people. And I’m not trying to minimize that number. I’m just trying to say let’s not overstate that number and make it sound like dozens of people are dying in Douglas every day, because it’s simply not true.

Now, they — these people are sympathetic. They do come from areas that, you know, that are really terrible conditions. I have to tell you, if I lived in some of these terrible conditions, I’d try to get here, too, especially if every signal I got from the US government was "come on." Every time the US government talks about amnesty, it encourages people to come to our borders for the exact reason that you named: so that business can have cheap labor in America. And this cheap labor holds down wages, and it hurts Americans.

So what we need to do is to sort of look at the whole picture. And let’s just not look at these illegal aliens. Let’s not look at the terrible consequences in third world countries, but let’s look at the consequences everywhere, including the consequences in our country. Where I live in the state in California, where there’s more poverty in California today than there was ten years ago, because of all the immigrant labor that has come in and held down wages. We need to look at the whole picture. Let’s not overstate the problem. Let’s help who we can help, but let’s be sure that we have an immigration policy that benefits America and Americans first and not to the expense of American workers.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Garcia, I give you the last word, as you prepare for this border summit that’s taking place in Tucson this weekend.

ISABEL GARCIA: Yes, we are having a border summit the 8th, 9th, and 10th in Tucson, so we can deal with it in a holistic way. However, I find it just absolutely unconscionable that Mr. Altman can so easily dismiss the over 400 people that have died, over one hundred in the Tucson sector alone, this past year. And for him to simply attempt to say it’s OK because they’re not immigrants, they’re illegal aliens, I find absolutely unconscionable.

They have been nothing but a — immigrants, as a whole, have been nothing but a windfall to this community, for this country. They have built the West. If every undocumented immigrant that he calls illegal alien were deported today, all of the major cities in this country would fall apart in one day. And I agree with you, it’s hypocritical. We need their labor. The state of Iowa is doing full-page ads to have immigrants come into their community, because they need their hard work. And yet, we hypocritically and in an unconscionable fashion, we set up this obstacle, deadly course for them to have to come through and risk their lives before they can get a job.

I find it unconscionable that he says we have to defend our border, when, as Father Carney states, these are people that are in fact starving. He’s not telling you the truth when he says it’s not so bad. It’s absolutely a lie, because people are, in fact, dying, attempting to get here, and it’s unconscionable that we have a policy that is directly causing them to die. Yes, they sneak across because of our immigration laws. That’s exactly why. And we as a country should be more conscious of human life. We have already allowed the military to become involved in this situation through the Joint Task Force 6. We have soldiers at the border, and all for immigrants who have done nothing but help our community. And until we deal with the issues in a holistic way, which we plan to do at this summit to deal with —

AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us the number of the Arizona Border Rights Project, if people want to get in touch with it in Tucson?

ISABEL GARCIA: Yes, our number — and I’m actually the director of the Pima County Legal Defender’s, but I’m with Derechos Humanos. Our phone number in Tucson is 520-770-1373. The border summit will deal with all three aspects.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s 520-770-1373. Can you just repeat the number? 770-13 —

ISABEL GARCIA: 1373.

AMY GOODMAN: 73. And Rick Altman of the Federation of American Immigration Reform, your contact information?

RICK ALTMAN: You can go to our website at www.fairus.org, and you can be updated as to what is going on on the border and why it’s important that we defend the border and not allow our country to become the destination for everybody in the world who wants to come here. And I just want to argue with the fact that they do not have the right to come here. We have the right to defend our country. Go to the FAIR website, and you’ll get additional information on this area in Arizona that the Douglas — or that the Border Patrol calls ground zero for illegal immigration into our country.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick Altman of Federation for American Immigration Reform. And Father Robert Carney, thanks for joining us, parish priest in Douglas, Arizona.

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