Senate Debate Over Immigration Reform Heats Up in Washington

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The Senate begins debate today on legislation to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that includes enforcement measures, provisions for a guest-worker program, and a way for undocumented workers way to work toward citizenship. We speak with the Director of Immigration Policy Research at the National Council of La Raza. [includes rush transcript]

The Senate begins debate today on legislation to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that includes a number of enforcement measures as well as a way for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country a chance to work here legally and eventually become U.S. citizens.

On Wednesday, Bush spoke up for the first time in favor of a guest-worker program that leads to citizenship. Bush arrived in Cancun, Mexico last night and is scheduled to meet with Mexican President Vicente Fox today. The issue of immigration will likely dominate the agenda. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will also participate in the talks.

Back in Washington, the debate on the Senate Judiciary Committee bill is expected to end by next week, before the Senate leaves on recess. Any Senate bill would have to be reconciled with a House bill passed in December 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.

The bill sparked historic protests across the country. Including upwards of one million people taking to the streets in Los Angeles in what may have been California’s largest demonstration in history as well as tens of thousands of students walking out of schools across the country.

  • Michele Waslin, Director of Immigration Policy Research at the National Council of La Raza, the country’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization.

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

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the immigration reform issue, we’re joined by Michele Waslin. She’s Director of Immigration Policy Research at the National Council of La Raza, the country’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy group. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Michele, can you tell us what the situation looks like now in Washington as the debate begins to unfold in the Senate? It appears that the judiciary committee bill will be the first one debated, instead of the Frist bill, that would be an echo of the House 4437 bill.

MICHELE WASLIN: Right, there are two bills currently being debated in the Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a very comprehensive bill on a bipartisan basis on Monday. This bill includes a path to citizenship for current undocumented immigrants. It creates a new temporary worker program so that new workers can come to the country legally in the future. It reduces family immigration backlogs, and it also includes many harsh enforcement measures.

Now, at the same time, Senator Bill Frist introduced his own bill, which is very similar to the bill passed by the House of Representatives in December. So, I think the next couple of days of debate are going to be incredibly interesting. We know that the Senate is divided. We know that the Republicans are divided on the issue of immigration, and I think that it’s time for the Senate to decide whether they’re going to pass another message bill that makes it look like they’re tough on immigration or if they’re really ready to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work of passing a comprehensive solution that will actually fix the underlying problems.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, meanwhile the protests are continuing. Yesterday in Nashville, 15,000 immigrants and Latinos protested in one of the largest marches in that city’s history. But the front page article of the New York Times today, talking about how the Republican Party has already been damaged, in terms of winning support among Latinos, and this is coming from Latino Republicans who are furious about what’s been happening in this debate. Your sense of — though, the issue of when the Senate bill, whatever Senate bill comes out, and you, yourself, have said it has real problems in terms of tougher, much tougher enforcement provisions, will the final bill that eventually comes out even be worth supporting, or should people just wait until the congressional elections in November and try again next year when there may be a much more sympathetic congress?

MICHELE WASLIN: Well, I think that that’s really difficult to answer at this moment. Certainly, there are many problematic features in the House bill and in the Senate bill. However, I do know that there is bipartisan support for real comprehensive reform. We see Senators McCain and Kennedy joined on the same bill. We saw bipartisan support in the judiciary committee. I think that people from both parties know that the business groups, organized labor, ethnic groups, immigrant rights groups, the churches, are all in favor of a comprehensive immigration bill. And you certainly don’t want to alienate any of those major groups, especially during an election year, so I think that there’s still a great opportunity for the Senate to be reasonable and rational and pass a good comprehensive solution. But, unfortunately, as you mentioned, whatever the Senate passes will have to be reconciled with the House bill, and that is going to be very difficult, unless the House makes a sudden change and decides that it can support a more comprehensive approach to immigration reform.

AMY GOODMAN: And Michele, can you explain that House bill, what you find is the most egregious aspects of it?

MICHELE WASLIN: Wow, it’s difficult to choose just a few. First of all, I think that the bill has been mislabeled a border security bill. While there certainly are measures to enhance security, increase the number of border patrol agents at the border, this bill goes far beyond border security. It also goes far beyond punishing undocumented immigrants. This bill would have a very serious negative impact on legal immigrants and even on U.S. citizens. For example, it severely limits the due process rights of immigrants living legally in this country, making it much easier for them to be deported quickly without any chance to see a judge. It would make it much more difficult for legal permanent residents to become U.S. citizens.

And then, of course, there are the provisions we’ve all heard about, that it would make all undocumented immigrants felons. It would also broaden the definition of smuggling, transporting, aiding, harboring, so that many social service workers, humanitarian aid providers, could be found guilty and prosecuted of smuggling and aiding and abetting. This also —- the bill also gives inherent authority to all state and local police to enforce all immigration laws. So we have a very potentially dangerous situation, where -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: It also — doesn’t it provide funding for a 700-mile wall along the Mexican border?

MICHELE WASLIN: Yes, it does. It would build additional fencing in urban areas, which we fear would really drive migrants toward more rural areas, where it’s much more dangerous to cross, and we fear that it would increase the number of deaths along the border.

AMY GOODMAN: Michele Waslin, you’re inside the Beltway. We’re outside, and so are the massive protests, unprecedented on any issue around the country. What effect did those protests have inside Washington?

MICHELE WASLIN: Well, certainly, everybody is talking about it. The senators have mentioned it every step of the way. They can’t help but notice that many of their constituents are out marching, demanding comprehensive reform, demanding responsible action. I think it’s incredibly exciting that finally the immigrant voice is being heard. For too long, the Minutemen and other anti-immigrant groups have really dominated the debate on this, and it’s about time that the other side of this debate has its voice heard, and, of course, the marchers are not all undocumented immigrants. These are U.S. citizens, legal immigrants, that are demonstrating their support for their communities, their family members. And I certainly hope that Congress will begin to pay more notice to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Michele Waslin, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Director of Immigration Policy Research at the National Council of La Raza, the country’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy group. And I just want to end with the comment to Michele and Juan, on who is protesting, as Michele pointed out, legal immigrants, but also undocumented immigrants, and their — it takes a lot of bravery, especially in a climate when, for example, in New York, you have the New York police just admitting that they’re not only videotaping protesters, in general, but they’re saving those videotapes. So, if the law is passed, and already there are very serious laws around immigrants without documents, but if these laws are passed, there’s a lot of videotape out there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, and it definitely takes considerable bravery, much more than your normal protester, for someone who is living in the shadows in this country already to come out and participate in these kinds of protests.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I think it would be conservative to say that probably these unprecedented protests would be even larger.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, but interestingly, I think that a lot of the protesters, as Michele mentioned, are legal residents and citizens, because there was a new poll that just came out from Sergio Ben Dixon’s group that shows that as many as 80% of U.S. Latino citizens are supporting, believe that immigrants are producing greater benefits to the country and believe that they’re being scapegoated, so I think that there’s a wellspring of massive support in the Latino and immigrant community, in general.

AMY GOODMAN: Here in New York, the protests have not been as large, but organizers say they expect tens of thousands of people to make their way over the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday, as part of this nationwide rally over the proposed changes to the nation’s immigration laws.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, and then on April 10, all around the country, labor unions and immigrant rights groups are trying to coordinate a national day of protest, for April 10, around the issue. So I think these are going to continue up until the Senate decides one way or — well, until Congress decides and the President decides one way or another how they’re going to stand on this.

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