Immigrants and Pending Laws

Several legislative measures under consideration in Congress could either harm or help undocumented immigrants in the United States. One that would harm them in this post-9/11 period of anti-immigrant sentiment is the CLEAR Act, introduced by Representative Charlie Norwood, Republican of Georgia. Its full name is the Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal Act. It would require states to pass statutes authorizing state and local police officers to enforce immigration laws, a matter that in the past was the responsibility of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. (The functions of the former I.N.S. have now been divided up among three Department of Homeland Security bureaucracies.)

 

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Immigration rights advocates, however, along with state and local police departments and advocates for victims of violence, rightly view the CLEAR Act as harmful. It could deter victims of domestic violence, a serious problem in the immigrant community, or of crime in general from seeking assistance from their local police. Those undocumented people could justifiably fear that officers who respond to their call for help might ask to see papers proving they were in the United States legally. If no such documents could be produced, the officer would be obliged to contact the federal immigration authorities, and the original caller would then be taken into custody. Even a simple traffic violation might lead to the same result, with the attendant danger of deportation proceedings.

Because many undocumented workers have been here for years, paying taxes and raising children, deportation would inflict severe damage on family unity, separating one parent, often the breadwinner, for long periods or even permanently from the other parent and from their U.S.-born children by forcing the person to return to his or her country of origin. The U.S. bishops have consistently emphasized family unity as a priority in the context of immigration laws that have become increasingly punitive. Three years ago, they called upon federal policy makers to enact “reforms which uphold the basic dignity and human rights of immigrants and preserve the unity of the immigrant family.” Toward this end, they advocated “the legalization of the maximum number of persons in an undocumented or irregular status, particularly those who have lived here for several years.”

This bishops’ plea for legalization was underscored in October at a large-scale rally in Flushing Meadow, Queens. The rally marked the culmination of a two-week cross-country caravan campaign called the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. With Cardinal Edward M. Egan, archbishop of New York, on hand as one of the speakers, church support was evident. But also present was John J. Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. Labor unions, in fact, were strong backers of the cross-country campaign, not least because of their hope that legalization of immigrants already employed in the agriculture, poultry and meat processing industries—as well as in the hotel and restaurant industries—could lead to growth in union membership.

As a sign that both business and humanitarian interests are being heeded in Congress, bipartisan legislation was introduced in September by Senators Larry Craig (Republican) and Edward Kennedy (Democrat); and in the House by Representatives Howard Berman (Democrat) and Chris Cannon (Republican). Formally known as the Agriculture Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act, the measure could help regularize the immigration status of workers employed in the agricultural sector. It is estimated that half of these are undocumented. The AgJobs Act, as it is called, would permit farm workers who have labored in the industry for a certain period of years to become eligible for temporary immigration status, with the possibility of becoming permanent residents on completion of certain other requirements.

A second bipartisan legislative measure, co-sponsored by Senators Orrin Hatch (Republican) and Richard Durbin (Democrat) is called the Dream Act. Its full name is the Development, Relief and Education Relief for Alien Minors Act. It would repeal provisions of federal law that discourage states from providing in-state tuition help to undocumented immigrants studying here. It would also enable young people of good moral character to qualify for permanent resident status after graduating from high school. A companion bill in the House, the Student Adjustment Act, would address some of the same goals. It is bills of this kind and the AgJobs Act that deserve support in Congress—not destructive initiatives like the CLEAR Act.

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