Immigration Advocates to Push Legislation this Summer

The coalition of advocates for comprehensive immigration reform is gearing up for a summer-long push to get moving on comprehensive legislation this year, with kickoff events around the country scheduled for the first weeks of June and a summit meeting at the White House scheduled for June 16. While it apparently will be some time before the latest version of a comprehensive reform bill is ready to advance in Congress, several individual bills already have been introduced to address some specific immigration issues.

Oft-shelved efforts have been revived to pass broadly supported bills dealing with agricultural workers and students without legal status who come to the country with their parents. Known respectively as the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act, or AgJOBS, and the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or the DREAM Act, both bills may advance through Congress before a comprehensive bill does. At a June 3 Washington press conference sponsored by the new coalition called Reform Immigration for America, a roster of regular and some new supporters of comprehensive reform laid out the agenda for the coming months. Most of the goals are the same as they have been for the last several legislative attempts at comprehensive reform, but with a few new points of focus.

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Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, was one of several speakers at the press conference emphasizing economic angles in favor of bringing the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country into full legal status.

Currently the U.S. labor force consists of a "three-tier system," he said, made up of U.S. citizens, legal guest workers and undocumented workers. "That serves only to undermine wages for all workers," he said, with employers taking advantage of undocumented workers, driving down wages for everyone. "We cannot hope to fix the economy as long as a significant number of workers are forced to live in the shadows," he said.

The goals for comprehensive reform have long included: a legalization plan for undocumented immigrants to pay fines, learn English and become legal residents after a backlog of applications through existing channels are addressed; reform of the legal immigration system, making it easier for families to be reunited; enforcement targeted at employers; and restoration of due process rights for immigrants. One new component being floated for discussion among those who hope to influence how legislation is written is the possible creation of an immigration commission to study why and how people come to the United States, said Medina.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said a White House summit with congressional leaders scheduled for June 16 is intended to begin the serious push toward creating and passing a comprehensive reform bill. President Obama has said he intends to take up immigration reform this year, but the White House staff has said they don't expect it to be resolved until 2010. Meanwhile, House and Senate committees have begun holding hearings on other aspects of immigration issues.

One of those hearings, held by the Senate Judiciary Committee June 3, focused on legislation sponsored by committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on family-based immigration. At that hearing, Leahy said his Uniting American Families Act was intended to enable U.S. citizens to apply for immigration status for their nonmarital domestic partners. Currently only heterosexual married couples may apply for such visas for their spouses. Same-sex marriages, which are recognized by some states and in some countries, or unmarried domestic partnerships are not recognized under federal law as conferring rights to immigrate.

"The benefits this legislation seeks to provide are not contingent upon the definition of marriage, which I believe is an issue best left to the states," said Leahy.

The bishop who heads the migration committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in letters to members of Congress on June 2 that the conference would oppose such legislation. Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, wrote supporting another family reunification bill, the Reuniting Families Act, sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., which would allow traditionally defined families to reunite more quickly in the United States.

Leahy's bill, and a companion version introduced in the House by Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., "would erode the institution of marriage and family," Bishop Wester wrote in a letter to Honda. He said Honda's bill promotes a position that is contrary to the very nature of marriage which “predates the church and the state."

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