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A Debate on the Senate’s Proposed Overhaul of Immigration Laws

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The Senate is debating an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws this week. We host a debate on various aspects of the bill with Aarti Shahani of Families for Freedom and Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute. [includes rush transcript]

Protests are continuing across the country against proposed changes to the nation’s immigration laws. In the Los Angeles area at least 11,000 students took part Tuesday in a second day of walkouts despite school lockdowns and threats from administrators. On Monday 40,000 took part in what may have been the largest student walkout in the country’s history. Later in the show we will head to Los Angeles to hear from student protesters and we will look back to the historic 1968 student walkouts in Los Angeles. But first we will examine the immigration legislation being considered in Washington.

The Senate is preparing to begin debate this week on overhauling the nation’s immigration laws. On Monday the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would allow the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country a chance to work here legally and eventually become U.S. citizens.

Written by Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy and Republican John McCain, the bill would give undocumented immigrants a chance to earn green cards and eventually obtain citizenship. In order to do this the immigrants would have to agree to spend six years as temporary workers; pay $2,000 in fines and all back taxes; undergo criminal background checks, and show proficiency in English and civics. The committee agreed to the bill by a vote of 12 to 6 with all six votes against coming from Republicans.

Immigration reform is proving to be an issue that deeply divides not only the country but the Republican Party. The House has already approved legislation written by Republican James Sensenbrenner that has been described as the most repressive immigration bill in 70 years. House bill 4437 would, among other things, make every undocumented immigrant a felon and make it a crime for priests, nuns, health care workers and other social workers to offer help to undocumented immigrants.

Today we are joined by two guests who have been following the legislation closely:

  • Aarti Shahani, co-founder of the group Families for Freedom.
  • Tamar Jacoby, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. She has written extensively on immigration and citizenship. Her most recent book is “Reinventing the Melting Pot: The New Immigrants and What It Means To Be American.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we’re joined by two guests who have been following the legislation closely. With us here in New York is Aarti Shahani, co-founder of the group, Families for Freedom. In our Washington studio, Tamar Jacoby. She is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who has written extensively about immigration issues. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to welcome you both, and I’d like to start with Aarti, if you could talk to us about the latest developments in the past few days, especially what the prospects are for some kind of legislation coming out.

AARTI SHAHANI: Sure. The day before yesterday, the Judiciary Committee of the Senate agreed on an immigration bill, but the details of that bill are actually obscure and not as optimistic as many people have been painting it to be. The headlines the very next day were “Earned Legalization” or “Legalization About To Come.” El Diario in New York, for example, proclaimed “Victoria,” victory for immigrants. Unfortunately, this earned legalization bill seems to actually be an immigration enforcement bill.

So just to break down what the provisions look like, there is a discussion about a temporary guest worker program that may ultimately result in green cards, but the restrictions placed on people are so strong that it’s not clear that any of the 11 million people here currently would be able to benefit, and in that six-year process of having to gain employment, seek employment, secure employment, it’s not clear that even six years from now people are going to be able to gain green cards. Apart from that, however, what’s been a stated focus of immigration legislation in the comprehensive immigration reform debate is the need for more enforcement.

A lot of Americans don’t realize that already America’s immigration system is very, very tight, very harsh. Interior enforcement and border enforcement are really out of control, resulting in the deportation of 1.4 million people in the last ten years alone. Now, this bill would actually expand interior enforcement and border enforcement yet again, so that as we’re fighting for green cards that may not even come, the actual value of the green card is diminishing.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As I understand it, some of the debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee on C-SPAN, they would be doubling the number of border patrol agents over five years, I think from about 11,000 to 22,000 or so within the next five years, so it’s a sharp ramping up of border security.

AARTI SHAHANI: As well as detention beds in the interior. They’re talking about taking military bases and adding 10,000 new detention beds. Immigrants are already the fastest growing segment of the domestic prison population. That would only continue with this bill.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you both are criticizing legislation, but from very different perspectives. Tamar Jacoby of Manhattan Institute, can you talk about your perspective on the immigration laws as they’ve been passed in the House and being considered in the Senate?

TAMAR JACOBY: I actually disagree very strongly with the other guest, not just about this bill, but about her assumptions about the immigration debate. It’s not an either/or, can we have immigration and can we have legality, too? What all of the bills, except the House bill, what everyone from President Bush to Senator Kennedy, and that’s a pretty broad range in American politics today, are suggesting is that we can have robust immigration. We can treat the immigrants who come here today humanely and in a dignified way, and we can have control of the system and the rule of law and legality and enforcement, and that they’re not necessarily contradictions anymore or they don’t have to be contradictions, and that both would be good for the country.

And the way we get there — what the argument is, is that if we have a system that has big enough quotas to accommodate the number of people who are coming here now to do jobs, largely — they’re largely coming to work, and they do jobs that Americans don’t tend to want to do anymore — if we can have our immigration quotas be big enough to accommodate all those people, then enforcing those immigration quotas won’t necessarily be draconian or repressive or oppressive or anything like that. Think about traffic laws or liquor licenses or all kinds of laws that work for people, keep people happy and safe and are not necessarily draconian or oppressive. That’s the idea of the overhaul of the immigration system now, that we can have the immigrants, treat them humanely and in a dignified way and have enforcement and the rule of law and security, too.

And believe me, if we can’t find a way to have both, the American people are not going go for this law. We have to find a way to get to that middle ground where enforcement isn’t a dirty word anymore. The House bill is a bad bill, because it’s only enforcement and doesn’t create a way for immigrants to come in a legal and dignified humane way. If you do only enforcement, if you try to enforce our current laws where the quotas are too low, then you’re going to get repression and a draconian, Orwellian situation. But if you change the laws to make them more realistic, enforcement doesn’t need to be a dirty word.

AARTI SHAHANI: You know, I actually take issue with the way that you frame it from the outset. And I think that, Tamar, I want to thank you for basically exemplifying the problem with the immigration debate right now. The problem is that from the very beginning, the immigration debate in the Beltway has been a conversation about whether or not we should have legalization. Is it legalization or a guest worker program? Now, alongside that very important question, there is another fact which is that already our enforcement regime in this country is out of control.

Already, we’ve had the Supreme Court — a conservative court, by the way — actually rule against pieces of the immigration enforcement, such as, for example, indefinite detention. So, in the bill that we’re talking about now, that you advocate now as being a compromised bill or a sensible bill, the bill would actually, for example, reverse Supreme Court decisions and allow for the indefinite detention of people because they’re not citizens of this country. The bill would further expand grounds of deportability and mandatory detention and deportation.

So, I actually don’t think that you can talk about the bill as though it’s sensible or tempered, because it’s starting from a place with the assumption that we don’t have strict enough enforcement, when already the fact is families are being devastated. I work in New York with immigrant families and citizens who are married to immigrants, who day by day are losing parents and spouses, because already the immigration laws are unforgiving. So I think that that’s one point to really keep in mind as we talk about the immigration debate. And I thank you for really laying out how it’s been framed and how we actually need to reframe it, which is not just from a conversation of the business interests that you represent, but also the rights interests that presumably American people care about.

TAMAR JACOBY: Well, first of all, I don’t represent business interests, and I resent the characterization, but this bill that passed in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week is supported by — it’s going to be supported by all the Democrats in the Senate; it’s going to be — it’s strongly supported by the Change to Win labor coalition. It’s strongly supported by immigrant advocates here in Washington, so, I mean, to characterize it as some sort of rightwing business bill is just not particularly informed, and unfortunately, what’s probably going to happen in the Senate is that we’re going to have to compromise on a bill that’s considerably tougher is what’s eventually going to pass. This is, if you will, the most generous liberal version of this bill of any kind of immigration reform that anyone is going see on the table, you know, probably in our lifetime. So, if this doesn’t work for you, I think you’re going to be disappointed as the debate proceeds.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Ms. Jacoby, I’d like to ask you, in terms of what the impact of —- because right now we don’t have any bill. We have various versions, and we’re still not clear whether Bill Frist, the Majority Leader, is going to introduce his own more, I guess, repressive bill in the Senate to attempt have that voted on before the Judiciary Committee bill is voted on, but it does appear within the Republican ranks itself there are major differences over immigration, period. You do have -—

TAMAR JACOBY: Yes, indeed, there are. There are very strong divisions, and on that score, you’re right. There are a lot of people who would make a big mistake in trying to pass and trying to impose on the country a very unworkable repressive enforcement regime. There are Republicans in the House who, again, just want to throw more enforcement resources at our unrealistic laws, and there are — and you’re right, Bill Frist is probably going to — is at least advocating something like that, as well.

But to understand the difference here, the difference is between taking a 25-mile-an-hour speed limit on an interstate or prohibition and trying to enforce that, and when you enforce that kind of unrealistic law, yes, then everybody on the highway basically is driving illegally, and enforcement becomes very oppressive, because you’re cracking down on everyone. When you have a realistic law, enforcement is not necessarily a bad thing. When the speed limit is 65 miles-an-hour, enforcement keeps everybody safe.

AARTI SHAHANI: You know, maybe you could speak to one fact in the current bill, as it stands, that you seem to be fairly pleased with. Right now, the current bill has provisions around fraud, for example, so that if you are an undocumented worker that has been — that admits to committing certain types of fraud to obtain employment, you can’t actually legalize. Now, I’m not sure, you know, how well aware you may be of this — I just don’t want to make any assumptions —- but a lot of workers have to commit fraud to gain employment, and they often do it with the complicity of their employers, so now those workers -—

AMY GOODMAN: Like what? Explain.

AARTI SHAHANI: So, for example, you can fill out a form for employment, and your employer will actively tell you, 'Oh yeah, check out — you have a Social Security number here. Put these numbers in it.' It happens all the time. It happens in New York; it happens in L.A.; it happens in cities all around the country. Now, that type of activity, technically, under the letter of this law that you’re advocating, would make it so that you’re barred from actually gaining legalization.

I’m not sure that the millions of people that have been mobilizing this week are aware of all the strict provisions, and this is another concern I have, is that you have the conversation in the Beltway. The conversation in the Beltway about comprehensive immigration reform is really a conversation about a limited earned legalization program that looks more like a temporary guest worker program, and then hyper interior and border enforcement.

Now, the mobilization in the streets is actually a mobilization where people are coming out thinking that it’s going to be legalization the way it was imagined from 1986, the type of legalization where you actually get your green card because you’ve already been working here for decades, you’ve already been paying taxes, and that’s not what’s actually up for grabs, and so I think the disconnect between what Tamar and people in the Beltway are talking about and the popular mobilization on the street is one very important point.

TAMAR JACOBY: Well, you know, look, the American people are going have to support this law in order for it to pass, and, you know, I agree with you. If people have committed fraud that’s in the normal course of being an undocumented immigrant here, you know, it’s going to be tough, and if that means millions of people can’t come onto the right side of the law that will be problematic. But it’s not really realistic to expect the American people to say, 'Well, we don't care if people have committed crimes. We’re going to legalize them anyway.’ People are hesitant to legalize people in the first place. And they’re going to want people — one of the criteria is to not have committed a crime, and if this bill ends up allowing 11 million people to work their way onto the right side of the law, I think it will be pretty promising — not just promising, it will be landmark legislation.

AARTI SHAHANI: I mean, the main problem — if the bill allowed 11 million people to regularize their status, it would be an amazing accomplishment, but let’s not kid ourselves. There are so many things right now in place that would ensure that that, in fact, does not happen.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Like what in the bill?

AARTI SHAHANI: First of all, the fraud provisions will ensure that of the 11 million people, people who actually admit to having to commit fraud to obtain work, which is just about everyone, could be barred. Now apart from that, okay, apart from that, the bill’s provisions around enforcement are really, really strict.

TAMAR JACOBY: But look, the American people do want an airtight immigration system now. And in the age of post-9/11, they’re not wrong to ask for that. People are fed up with the system where the rule of law is routinely undermined in their communities and their neighborhoods. You know, I say it’s one thing to ask the American people to accept a million-and-a-half foreigners in their midst every year, people who they fear might be taking their jobs — they’re not, but, of course, there are natural fears that come with that kind of immigration flow —- and ask them to accept guaranteed illegality. People just don’t -—

AARTI SHAHANI: You know, I’m not sure that it’s a conversation about what the American people —

TAMAR JACOBY: I didn’t interrupt you. I didn’t interrupt you.

AARTI SHAHANI: I’m sorry. Go ahead.

TAMAR JACOBY: I think — we’re talking about politics, and it is a conversation about what the American people will accept, and I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation, that we restore the rule of law in this country and restore security on our border. I happen to believe that we can do all of that and treat immigrants in a humane, decent way, but asking the American people or the Senate — if it becomes a choice and the American people or the Senate have to choose between the two of them, believe me, the rule of law and security will win. So, if you don’t like a debate where it’s framed and where some, I think, very astute lawmakers have figured out a way to try to deliver both, if you’re not happy with that, as I said before, I think you’re going to be very disappointed as the debate proceeds, and frankly, I think your position where you’re trying to make people make a choice between those two is not going to be a very promising strategy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, once again, I’d like to get back to the issue of what could potentially pass, because I’ve been covering this immigration issue now for about 30 years, and I was around in 1986 when the IRCA was originally passed and the debate over that, and so I’m familiar with the reality that the forces at play in this issue are a lot deeper on both sides in terms of the intensity of feelings. So, you have a situation where the possibility — the reality is that the current House bill has sparked unprecedented mass protests of the Latino community around the United States, and Senator John McCain said yesterday, “This issue has gotten the attention of Hispanics like no other issue in history.”

And there is a raging debate in the Republican Party to what degree they are trying to win support of Hispanic voters, the legal citizen voters, and this issue cuts across, whether you are undocumented or documented. My question to you, because whatever comes out of the Senate will have to be reconciled with the House bill, do you see any good prospects for some kind of an immigration bill actually coming out that would provide some kind of route to legalization for those 11 million people now who are living in the shadows in this country?

TAMAR JACOBY: Yeah, that’s a very good question. As in any game, the best defense is a good offense. And you’re right, that the bill out of the House is a completely unacceptable bill, but the best hope, I think, of defeating or modifying the House bill is a strong bill out of the Senate that accomplishes what I believe needs to get accomplished, which is to give people a way to come legally, combine that with enforcement measures and have the transition for the 12 million people already here. So if we get a good comprehensive bill out of the Senate and we take that to conference, that’s going to be the best — our best hope of countering all the bad things in the House bill.

Now, if what comes out of conference isn’t closer to the Senate than to the House, I think you’ll see the Democrats in the Senate vote against it. So the idea of a strong bill coming out of the Senate is really the only way I can think of to counter what’s coming out of the House, because if you ask people to vote just against or to dilute — nobody, Democrat or Republican is going to vote to dilute a border security bill just on its face. So the best way to answer it is to say, ’Here’s a better answer,’ and to counter the bad answer in the House with a better answer out of the Senate.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re heading to Los Angeles to hear from some of the protesters, but Aarti Shahani, 15 seconds.

AARTI SHAHANI: I think the bottom line with this bill is that even in the best of all worlds, if you actually take it as an earned legalization bill and it’s not watered down in a conference committee, which it probably will be, this bill doesn’t seem to guarantee green cards, has tremendous provisions that will bar people from green cards and requires the registration of immigrants and citizens alike, which will result in a de facto national I.D. system and immigrants having to register themselves with the government with the hope that they may actually get green cards eventually, which is not in any near future going to come.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll leave it there, but we’ll continue the discussion. Aarti Shahani, organizer with the immigrant advocacy group, Families for Freedom, and Tamar Jacoby, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, written extensively on immigration and citizenship. Her most recent book is Reinventing the Melting Pot: The New Immigrants and What It Means to be American.

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