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2005-12-16

House Debates Bill to Rewrite Immigration Laws, Includes Provision that Makes it a Felony to be an Undocumented Worker

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The House debates a bill that would rewrite the nation’s immigration laws. The legislation makes it a felony to be an undocumented worker to be in the United States without authorization and requires all employers to verify the legal status of their workers. We speak with the general counsel of the immigration worker program at the AFL-CIO and a member of the Border Network for Human Rights. [includes rush transcript]

The House overcame internal opposition Thursday and began debate on a bill that would rewrite the nation’s immigration laws.

The legislation–known as HR 4437–was introduced last week by Republican House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. It was pushed through committee one day later with little debate.

Sensenbrenner has been trying to get the full House to approve the bill this week, but has run into resistance from both sides of the aisle. Among other measures, the legislation will make it a felony–instead of a misdemeanor–to be in the United States without authorization. It will require all employers to verify the legal status of their workers. It will deputize police along the border to act as immigration enforcers. And it will allow immigration agents to summarily deport people in border areas they suspect of being undocumented, with little or no due process.

Seeking to sink the legislation, several congressmembers took the tactical step on Thursday of voting against a rule that had to pass to allow the measure to go up for a vote. After GOP leaders appealed for party unity, the House voted 220-206 to approve the parliamentary measure needed to move forward. Wisconsin Republican, James Sensenbrenner took the floor last night and urged the chamber to approve the bill.

  • Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R–WI), December 15, 2005.

A coalition of Republican lawmakers are pushing even tougher measures including a provision to deny citizenship for the children born to undocumented workers. Last night, the House voted to approve an amendment that would require the Department of Homeland Security to build five fences along 700 miles of the US border. The fences would be constructed along stretches of land in California, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.

While the White House said in a statement that it strongly supported the bill, a storm of opposition to the legislation has been mounting from labor and other groups. Protests have occurred on Capitol Hill, in Los Angeles and elsewhere. The AFL-CIO wrote all members of Congress asking them to vote the bill down.

  • Ana Avendano, associate general counsel of the immigration worker program at AFL-CIO.
  • Fernando Garcia, director of the Border Network for Human Rights based in El Paso, Texas. He is leading a delegation of border community leaders to Capitol Hill to oppose the bill and discuss alternatives to border enforcement and immigration reform.

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner took the floor last night and urged the chamber to approve the bill.

REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER: The key in this bill is Mr. Calvert’s employer verification system, because that will flush out those who hire large numbers of illegal aliens. And they can go into the marketplace and pay a decent wage to people who are legally entitled to work here. And I think that this is the main reason why this bill should pass. Now, we have heard a litany of complaints about all of the enforcement provisions, fences on the border, making it a criminal offense overstaying one’s visa, giving the sheriffs in border counties the authority to enforce the immigration law, which they don’t have now. The fact is is that those people who are against this bill don’t want any changes in the existing system, except perhaps amnesty or, excuse me, earned legalization, and ultimately citizenship for those who have broken the law.

This bill has our priorities straight. We have to secure the border. We have to provide law enforcement the tools to apprehend those who have broken the law. And we have to force our employers to flush out all the fake documents that are out there that are held by people who are illegally in this country, which is what the verification program proposes to do. This is a good bill. It’s a necessary first step. And if this bill is defeated, as all of those who have been saying no to everything goes down, the consequence is going to be the continuation of the intolerable existing system.

AMY GOODMAN: Wisconsin Republican Congress member James Sensenbrenner. A coalition of Republican lawmakers are pushing even tougher measures including a provision to deny citizenship for the children born to undocumented workers here. Last night the House voted to approve an amendment that would require the Department of Homeland Security to build five fences along 700 miles of the US border. The fences would be constructed along stretches of land in California, New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona.

While the White House said in a statement it strongly supports the bill, a storm of opposition to the legislation has been mounting from labor and other groups. Protests have occurred on Capitol Hill, in Los Angeles and elsewhere. The AFL-CIO wrote all members of Congress asking them to vote down the bill.

We’re joined in our DC studio by two guests. Ana Avendano is the associate general counsel of the immigration worker program at the AFL-CIO, and Fernando Garcia is director of the Border Network for Human Rights, which is based in El Paso, Texas. He is leading a delegation of border community leaders to Capitol Hill to oppose the bill and discuss alternatives to border enforcement and immigration reform. I want to welcome you both to Democracy Now! and begin with Ana Avendano of the AFL-CIO. Can you just lay out for us what the legislation is that the House is poised to vote on today?

ANA AVENDANO: Good morning. Sure. I mean, this is a mean-spirited, anti-immigrant piece of legislation that really does nothing to fix the broken system. It essentially dehumanizes immigrants in a shameful way. The first thing, as you noted in your commentary, it criminalizes immigration status, which in the history our country, immigration status has always been a civil issue. It also delegates authority to the secretary of Homeland Security, for example, to base decisions about whether or not immigrants can become citizens based on his unreviewable discretion, and he can base his decision on secret evidence, if he wants, to deem somebody a terrorist or that somebody has not good moral character and deny that person citizenship. It also significantly expands these criminal provisions, like smuggling, for example, and it makes anybody who assesses or facilitates an undocumented person staying in this country a criminal smuggler. This bill is really a militaristic framework and, again, it ignores all of the economic reasons why people are coming to this country looking for work, and it does nothing to really fix the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Fernando Garcia, you are leading this delegation of border leaders to challenge the bill. Can you talk about what you’re finding as you speak with Congress members — you’re getting access to Congress members — and what are you proposing?

FERNANDO GARCIA: Well, actually, it’s been extremely disappointing the way that the discussions are happening at the Capitol Hill. Delegation that I’m leading from border activists and border communities came to see and to have an open dialogue on how these discussions are being developed, and it’s pretty sad in the way that people at the Hill are talking about immigrants. It is sad to hear that they consider us not as a part — an important part of the society, but as less than human beings and more like criminals. So I think that it is really upsetting for our immigrant community that they don’t receive any respect and recognition in their contribution.

However, we also have seen with some — especially with some members of the Senate, that they are more open to actually discussing a comprehensive immigration reform that would include legalization in a different way to approach the whole border enforcement issue. So I think at this point we believe that the discussions are not going in the right direction, and we’re pushing for really to have a significant discussion on border enforcement issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Fernando Garcia of the Border Network for Human Rights, Ana Avendano with the AFL-CIO, I ask you to wait for just one minute, as we go to break and come back to this discussion.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Ana Avendano, associate general counsel of the immigration worker program at the AFL-CIO, and Fernando Garcia, director of Border Network for Human Rights, based in El Paso, Texas. But he is in Washington, as he and a delegation of border community leaders lobby Congress members against the bill, discussing alternatives to border enforcement. Fernando Garcia, the issue of deputizing police to act as immigration on the border, can you talk about the significance of this?

FERNANDO GARCIA: Yes, that is actually something that has been happening already in some cities, especially along the border, where local sheriff and local police departments are engaging in immigration enforcement, and the result of that is that it’s creating a unique situation in the border communities. One is that the people is losing confidence and trust of local police and local sheriffs, because they know that they are actually enforcing immigration laws, so when people actually lose credibility in police and sheriffs, they do not report crimes. So people always are afraid to report crimes because they will think twice of calling local police or even some sheriffs, if something is happening in their community, because there are the possibility that some kind of immigration questioning is going to start with those that’s supposed to protect the community. So it’s a potential of having unsafe communities and to have more criminalization, but also at the same time people is in danger, because they don’t have the confidence to calling local police. So we believe that that discussion is going in the wrong direction. Local police should enforce civil and criminal laws, but not necessarily immigration laws. I mean, it’s a bad mix.

AMY GOODMAN: Ana Avendano, what about the issue of the kids of people in this country who have come over the border, undocumented workers not being granted US citizenship?

ANA AVENDANO: This is an issue that has been part of the favorite on the agenda of the anti-immigrant crowd for a very long time. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is clear that US citizenship is granted for those who are born in the United States under the jurisdiction of the United States. And there is a movement to try to change that based on that phrase, based on "the jurisdiction of the United States." Again, it’s been on the agenda for a very, very, very long time, and now they have a voice. They found a forum in which to articulate that voice. Those kind of provisions are going to make us, the progressive community, challenge this law on constitutional grounds on several fronts. But, again, like other provisions in this law, that particular piece is, in our opinion, unconstitutional.

And I just want to make a quick comment about what you were talking about, the deputizing the police. I mean, that’s also going to have a significant effect on worker rights. Right now, employers call INS to have people deported or at least threaten deportation when workers try to exercise their rights either to join a union or to complain about workplace problems. This kind of law is going to make it much easier, particularly in the South and border areas, where employers now can just call their buddy, the sheriff, and have people arrested and deported when people try to exercise their rights. So this bill has really human rights implications, is has worker rights implications, it is just a very, very, very bad law.

AMY GOODMAN: Fernando Garcia, what about the issue of those who help immigrants coming over the border who are undocumented? There are students from Colorado College who have actually been charged with a felony for — with the organization No More Deaths, who went to the border to help bring water to immigrants, because so many were dying in the desert as they came over. And what happens in this law now?

FERNANDO GARCIA: This bill actually further criminalizes not only immigrants, but also immigrant activists and people who is helping immigrants. But we’re going to continue with our same policy. Even if they tell us we’re also criminals by helping immigrants, so be it. I mean that this is the sectors of the community that is more unprotected, and no rights are guaranteed, and we believe that definitely there is a violation of basic human rights. So we’re going to continue with our humanitarian but also our political work in favor of undocumented people in this country, because nobody else is doing it. So what we heard is that, us, after the bill passed, we’re going to consider under a criminal lobby because we’re helping immigrants, so I think we’re concerned about that, but at the same time we need to respond and keep doing what we’re doing: helping the people that actually need it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Fernando Garcia, Director of the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso, Texas, leading a delegation of border community leaders to Capitol Hill to oppose the bill that is expected to be voted on today before House goes out on recess. And also Ana Avendano, associate general counsel of the immigration worker program at the AFL-CIO, and we’ll link to both of your websites on our website at DemocracyNow.org.

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