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Senate Votes Down White House-Backed Immigration Bill

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Immigrant rights has also been a central theme of the U.S. Social Forum, and many immigrant rights activists in Atlanta have been closely monitoring proposals on Capitol Hill to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. On Thursday, the Senate’s immigration bill collapsed after supporters failed to get enough votes to end debate. We get reaction from Catherine Tactaquin, director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: Immigrant rights has also been a central theme of the U.S. Social Forum, and many immigrant rights activists in Atlanta have been closely monitoring proposals on Capitol Hill to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. On Thursday, the Senate’s immigration bill collapsed after supporters failed to get enough votes to end debate.

AMY GOODMAN: The bill proposed sweeping changes to the nation’s immigration laws, including allowing possible legalization for some of the nation’s 12 million undocumented residents, increased militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and a temporary worker program. Opposition to the bill came from both conservative Republicans and immigrant rights activists.

Catherine Tactaquin joins us now from Atlanta, where she is attending the U.S. Social Forum, director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the bill not being voted on yesterday in Congress? It looks like the death of the current form of that bill.

CATHERINE TACTAQUIN: Well, we had opposed the Senate bill in the version that it was presented in the Senate, and we had no hope that it would be substantially improved with amendments, so we were glad to see that progress on the bill had stopped. But it’s hard to say that we were gleeful, because we think we’re still in a very bad situation with regards to immigrant rights.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what were your main objections to the bill as currently crafted?

CATHERINE TACTAQUIN: Well, as currently crafted, you know, it was a sweeping bill, and it included many provisions. We thought basically, however, this was still an enforcement-heavy bill, and as a compromise, it was set up in such a way as to really mitigate, I think, any of the kinds of positive reforms that we really need: a generous legalization program, avenues to address the backlogs of visas, to protect immigrant workers’ rights.

This bill really would have done much the opposite: increase border militarization enforcement, undermine workers’ rights, increase the number of disposable immigrant workers and actually create a lot of barriers to family unity and, I think, make it very hard for people who could be on a path towards permanent residency actually to get that status. It was really a long way down. It was tied to triggers, which included a certification by the Department of Homeland Security that the U.S. would have operational control of the U.S.-Mexico border, whatever that meant. So we thought it was really an untenable compromise, and we hope that with this — at this moment we can really look forward to writing a new chapter for immigrant rights and for immigration reform that’s based more on principles of fairness and justice and bringing some dignity to people.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I was struck particularly by the willingness of many liberal senators to go along with an essentially fundamentally new policy of the merit-based system, of how — the point system that would be awarded to future immigrants, in terms of being able to come into the country, and geared specifically toward income, education and knowledge of English.

CATHERINE TACTAQUIN: Right. And we were also very distressed to see this. And there really have been a number of members of Congress, including Senator Ted Kennedy, who for many, many years have really been champions on immigrant rights and have stuck their necks out many times to do what was right in terms of immigration. But despite the results of the midterm elections and Democrats achieving some tactical leadership positions in Congress, with regards to immigration, we think conservatives, Republicans in particular, were still writing the agenda and, I think, set barriers in place that resulted in these compromises that we also agreed were untenable.

This shift to a merit-based system of immigration and away from a family-based program, which has been a cornerstone of immigration policy for many years, we think, is extremely dangerous, and the fact that that became a critical part of this legislation, when in past years that had been proposed, but set aside, was really distressful. And so, we, you know, appreciated some of the efforts that many members of Congress made towards this compromise, but in the end we hope they’ll get back on board and work with us to do a better job. And certainly on our part, we’re going to do what we can to work not only in immigrant communities but with our allies across the country to ensure that we get a much better deal than the deal that was being presented.

AMY GOODMAN: Catherine Tactaquin, can you explain merit-based system?

CATHERINE TACTAQUIN: What they would do — and a lot of this, as it was proposed in the legislation, was unclear, but there would be points assigned to things such as education and skills, speaking English, so it would have set up a system which would bring into effect a program of legal immigration that would be based on these points. And so, it would favor highly skilled, more-educated English-speaking immigrants, and it was obvious this was a push from the business community and from more conservatives who didn’t want to see the kinds of immigrants that they perceived were coming into the country — lower-skilled, less-educated, non-English-speaking immigrants. So I think there was a lot of coding in some of the merit-based proposals, which have to do with race and culture. And it would have transformed this immigrant population to appeal more to supposedly U.S. economic interests, but I think we also saw, reading into this, that there were a lot of concerns about race and culture that were behind some of these proposals.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Are you concerned now about — obviously the supporters said this was a last chance to get something done before the presidential elections start rolling in next year, that now it looks like there won’t be any even discussion of immigration reform until 2009. Are you concerned what’s going to happen with the 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the country with the stepped-up immigration raids that have been occurring around the country and also the apparent willingness of the business community to try to now pass individual aspects of the bill, like the agribusiness component or a component to meet the needs of Silicon Valley for skilled workers? Your concern about what’s going to happen now with the 12 million undocumented?

CATHERINE TACTAQUIN: Well, you know, when we were doing education about this bill — and this is how unfortunate it is — that a lot of people in immigrant communities, when they found out what was really in the bill and what it would mean for those who were trying to legalize, they said, “No, we’re ready to stay with the status quo,” because even the path to legalization in this bill would have locked people to employers; it would have made them very vulnerable to exploitation by businesses; it would have meant that for those people who did not have their children with them here, they had no opportunity bring them to this country as part of a family unity gesture.

We actually got the news about the Senate decision in the middle of a workshop in which we were talking about the struggle for immigrant rights and the 2008 elections, and in that discussion many people raised concerns about, even in the immediate backlash, particularly from the grassroots right-wing conservative organizations who would be demanding that policymakers do something now about supposedly illegal immigration, want increased raids, an increase in deportations, and we’ve already seen that increase over the last — a dramatic rise across the country over the next six months.

We know that there will be an engaging discussion on immigration up to and through the November 2008 elections, which is why we were discussing it. We think we need to be a much more effective movement in bringing immigration issues to the table, involving immigrant communities, enhancing those voices and also taking up the challenge about how immigration is addressed. And in past years, we’ve recognized that often the terrain of the elections is not a great terrain for us. Immigration can get spun in the most ugly and divisive ways. We want to work with our allies to ensure that there’s a fair discussion of immigration, that those who are running for office are not manipulating immigrant communities for their vote, but are making commitments to fairness and justice and will bring that with them in the years forward. So we look at this as an opportunity and a challenge. We are concerned about a backlash, and we really want to make that untenable to support any punitive measures against immigrant communities in this immediate period, but we’re prepared to move forward.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to Catherine Tactaquin, director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, who’s at the U.S. Social Forum, we’re going to talk about those who came up from New Orleans.

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