The Immigration Debate: H.R. 4437,
S. 2454, and S. 2611
Three pieces of legislation spurred the debate over immigration in the 109th Congress, resulting in splits not only within lawmakers' parties and within the American public, but also among civil rights groups.
H.R. 4437, S. 2454, and S. 2611 were attempts by Congress to fix immigration laws that many perceive to be broken. Each bill varied in its approach to enforcement, and whether it would include or exclude a citizenship path for undocumented immigrants.
While some in the civil rights community accepted S. 2611, all groups rejected H.R. 4437 and S. 2454 and condemned provisions in the three bills that curtailed the rights of immigrants.
And in a close election year, many civil rights groups also lashed out at additional House hearings conducted during the August recess. Such hearings were seen more as a political ploy for the lawmakers to re-energize the Republican base than a sincere effort to reach a consensus to solve the immigration problem.
H.R. 4437 and LCCR's Stance on Immigration Reform
After months of intense debate, the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act (H.R. 4437) passed the House of Representatives by a margin of 239-182. Sponsored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., the act purportedly aimed to combat undocumented immigration in the U.S. However, civil rights groups argue that many of the act's provisions will curtail fundamental human and civil rights, resulting in adverse effects for both immigrants and citizens alike.
Among other things, H.R. 4437 would create a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border; eliminate the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (whose recipients are mostly from Africa); increase the penalties for employing undocumented immigrants; and make it a felony to house undocumented immigrants, with a punishment of no less than three years in prison plus fines.
H.R. 4437 also makes any unlawful presence in the U.S. - even a visa overstay - a felony, and expands the government's ability to lock up indefinitely immigrants who cannot be deported. These provisions especially incurred the criticism of the civil rights community, who called the act "harsh and unfair."
Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), said, "While we need to have a comprehensive approach to reforming our nation's broken immigration system, this deeply flawed bill attempts to criminalize undocumented immigrants without providing any safe, legal alternatives for people who simply want to share in the American Dream."
Many organizations, such as American Civil Liberties Union, the National Council of La Raza, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also expressed similar sentiments on H.R. 4437.
LCCR also pointed out that H.R. 4437 bears many similarities with the immigration reform laws enacted in 1996. A report done in 2004 by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, in partnership with the American Bar Association, criticized the 1996 laws for creating a "two-tier system of justice that singles out one segment of society for less favorable treatment."
On March 15, 2006, LCCR released a statement that called on the Senate to create a more comprehensive and fair immigration reform bill without the flaws inherent in H.R. 4437. LCCR insisted that any reform should have the following key elements:
A path to permanent residency - integrating hard-working immigrants who undergo background checks and pay back taxes is better than forcing millions of undocumented workers into an underground economy.
Firm and fair enforcement - treating all individuals with respect and dignity is consistent with humanitarian values and are universal regardless of legal status.
Restoration of due process - access to fair, humane and commonsense procedures for immigrants facing deportation is important in a just society.
Family reunification - subtracting the visas given to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens from visas available to all family immigrants will only artificially depress the number of visas available to other close relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
A meaningful way to address the future flow of workers into the U.S. - a proposal that does not protect and address the rights of immigrant workers, but rather forces them to leave the U.S. after a short period of time, will only encourage them to remain here illegally.
S. 2454 and "The Great American Boycott"
Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Securing America's Borders Act (S. 2454) was meant as an "enforcement-only" immigration bill. The bill skirted altogether the issues of a worker program, or a pathway to permanent residency for undocumented immigrants.
In most respects, S. 2454 resembled H.R. 4437. In addition to criminalizing any unlawful presence in the U.S., S. 2454 would also restrict immigrants seeking relief or asylum, eliminate judicial review for some agency decisions, and compromise the immigration appeals process.
S. 2454 failed on all accounts to address the five key elements that LCCR outlined for a comprehensive and acceptable immigration reform bill.
LCCR's Wade Henderson said, "The civil rights community is surprised that Senator Frist would try to bypass the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is working in good faith to produce a bipartisan and comprehensive immigration bill."
"Senator Frist's bill would instantly criminalize 11 million hardworking immigrants and those who help them. At the same time it would do little to improve our national security. This is not a bill that reflects positively on a nation built by immigrants. It is neither compassionate, nor does it fairly resolve the underlying problems that deserve to be debated and acted upon by the Senate Judiciary Committee," Henderson said.
By the time this bill was introduced, after H.R. 4437 passed the House, many of the sentiments espoused by LCCR were not only shared by other civil rights organizations, but also by the public at large. Growing opposition to the bills was manifested by mass protests and boycotts. On March 25, the Associated Press estimated that about 500,000 people protested on the streets of Los Angeles. In Denver, the number was 50,000, and in Sacramento and Charlotte, N.C., some several thousand were estimated to have participated in rallies and demonstrations.
Inspired by the showing, a group of approximately 100 political and immigrant rights organizations formed the "March 25 Coalition," and called for a larger protest, "The Great American Boycott," which was held on May 1, 2006. This time, the Associated Press estimated about 1 million people marched on the streets of Los Angeles. Four-hundred thousand showed up in the downtown district of Chicago, and tens of thousands more in New York, Houston, San Jose, Florida and Denver. Smaller rallies were reported in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and South Dakota.
At the same time, some civil rights groups noted a rise in hate activity and incidents that may have been a backlash to the pro-immigrant outpouring.
The Anti-Defamation League expressed concern that
"As the public debate over immigration reform has taken center-stage in American politics and public life, white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other racists have declared 'open season' on immigrants and attempted to co-opt and exploit the controversy by focusing their efforts - and their anger - on the minority group at the center of the controversy: Hispanics."
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) - a non-profit organization that tracks racist, anti-immigrant and other extremist groups in the U.S. - also reported an increase in the number of hate groups in the U.S. There were 803 such groups last year, up from 762 in 2004 and a 33 percent jump since 2000.
SPLC's report concurred with the findings of the Anti-Defamation League, concluding that Hispanic immigration has been "the single most important factor" in the increase of activity among hate groups. It has given them "an issue with real resonance," according to the report.
Civil Rights Groups Split Over S. 2611
On May 25, the Senate voted 62-36 to pass a bill that differed significantly from S. 2454 and H.R. 4437. Sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter, S. 2611, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, attempted to address some of the key elements that LCCR and other pro-immigrant groups insisted were crucial for a truly comprehensive immigration reform law.
The greatest difference between H.R. 4437 and S. 2611 lies in the latter's provision of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The provision would allow those who have been in the U.S. for at least five years an opportunity for legal status after paying certain fines and back taxes. Those who have been in the U.S. for two to five years would be required to return to their home countries for three years, after which they can return under a new guestworker program, or possibly obtain permanent residency.
S. 2611 also provided legalization options for those who have worked in the agricultural sector for at least two years under its new "BlueCard program." It also incorporated the DREAM Act, which makes legalization and affordable education possible for individuals who were brought to the U.S. as children.
However, S. 2611 still contains provisions that worry many civil rights groups. Among other things, the bill decreases the due process protections for those charged with immigration violations, by overruling Supreme Court interpretations of previous law on indefinite detention by giving Department of Homeland Security authority to detain immigrants indefinitely. These detentions can happen even if the immigrants have not committed a criminal offense and have no reasonable chance of returning home.
S. 2611 would also expand the definition of "aggravated felony" to include minor offenses; create harsher penalties for immigrants who fail to file change of address notices; thrust much of the burden of enforcement on local police; and declare English the "national language."
Reactions to S. 2611 have been mixed. Because S. 2611 amounted to a drastic improvement over the other two leading bills, some civil rights groups praised Sen. Specter for his efforts. The National Council of La Raza spoke favorably of the bill as a stepping stone toward better legislation in the future. Janet Murguía, president and CEO of NCLR, said in a press release, "While we support this bill moving forward, we intend to fight for changes to make it more workable, more effective, and fairer," she said.
But others said S. 2611 was still too problematic. "The Senate bill ... threatens to make more people ineligible for legal status and undermines the value of the legalization program," said John Trasviña, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) interim president and general counsel. Similarly, the Asian American Justice Center called the plan "unworkable," while the AFL-CIO called it "undemocratic, unjust and unworkable." John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, was quoted as saying, "This is not the time to start popping champagne corks."
More House Hearings A Ploy, Critics Say
As Congress tried to find a middle ground between H.R. 4437 and S. 2611, House leaders announced their plan to hold 21 additional immigration hearings across the nation during the August recess. The hearings were held coast-to-coast from San Diego to New York.
Many critics claimed that the additional hearings were a cheap ploy meant to help vulnerable Republican candidates in an election year where most voters indicated immigration as one of their top three issues. They noted that some of the places where the hearings took place were far from the borders. Indeed, the locations of many hearings - including Evansville, Ind., Dubuque, Iowa. and Concord, N.H. - were political battlegrounds in which Republicans faced strong opponents.
Many civil rights groups condemned the decision to hold additional hearings as diverting attention from more important domestic policy, with the serious consequence of further polarizing the nation.
The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was joined by a diverse group of organizations, including the NAACP and MALDEF, in criticizing the House hearings.
"Congress has a responsibility to the American people to engage in positive legislative action that solves the very real challenges we face regarding immigration, not simply putting up a border fence and calling it a day. Instead, the House has chosen to engage in a series of audiences that are one-sided, are creating a tide of anti-Hispanic attitudes, harming the environment and further polarizing the nation," said LULAC National President Rosa Rosales. "This is irresponsible behavior and unnecessary."