Monday, January 1, 2007

Immigrant groups set for charge in CongressLocal immigrant advocates are gearing up for a fresh push on comprehensive immigration reform in the new Democrat-controlled Congress, which opens for business next week.
With Democrats set to take control of Congress this month, local immigration advocates are planning vigils, lobbying campaigns and demonstrations with renewed hopes that 2007 might bring what so many other years have not: comprehensive immigration reform.

''I am firmly convinced that we will have immigration reform in the first part of the year . . . this is the moment,'' said Nora Sandigo, executive director of American Fraternity. ``It has to happen now or now.''

The group has already faxed every member of Congress and plans on starting a prayer vigil as soon as legislation is introduced and continue ''until it is passed,'' Sandigo said.

Other organizations, such as Honduran Unity and the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center also plan to lobby.

Amid all of the advocates' optimism, however, they acknowledge a long legislative road ahead, particularly in the House of Representatives.

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., did not put immigration on her list of the party's top issues for her first ''100 hours'' as leader.

The issue appears to be a sensitive one for newly elected House Democrats. Several campaigned against legalizing undocumented immigrants.

''Reform will not be automatic,'' said José Lagos, head of Honduran Unity, ``We will have to work very hard for it.''

Immigration reform stalled earlier this year after the House and Senate clashed over competing proposals.

The Senate version would have granted legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants and created a guest-worker program. The House-approved measure focused almost exclusively on enforcement and included a provision to build fences along parts of the U.S- Mexico border.

One controversial immigration measure signed into law by President Bush: the construction of a 700-mile fence along the southwest border with Mexico.

A group of Republican and Democrat lawmakers, including Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said last week that they were drafting new legislation that could possibly deny funding to the border fence, as well as provide for an easier path to citizenship than the original Senate bill -- a sign of the shift in the political landscape that came with the Democratic victories.


''The reality is we have a combination of a president who wants to leave this as a legacy issue, and . . . now with the Democrats in the majority, it's their opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to immigration reform,'' said Ana Carbonell, chief of staff for Republican Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart. ``That's a pretty big combination of interests that are at play.''

Bush, pointing to a recent series of federal raids that led to the detention of hundreds of undocumented immigrants, said recently that the current immigration system leads to the ``inhumane treatment of people.''


U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 1,282 immigrants in the December raids on six Swift & Co. meat processing plants across the country, in an effort to crack down on workers who use stolen identity documents to get jobs.

''The system we have in place has caused people to rely upon smugglers and forgers in order to do work Americans aren't doing,'' Bush said at the Dec. 20 press conference. ``The best way to deal with an issue that Americans agree on -- that we ought to enforce our borders in a humane way -- is we've got to have a comprehensive bill.''

Bush backed the Senate bill passed in 2006 and has said he hopes to sign immigration legislation in 2007.

But with the 2008 presidential year looming, advocates realize that the current political will for changes in immigration law could quickly vanish.


''It's a very controversial issue, and I just don't see the bipartisan support there at this time,'' said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. ``It's hard to imagine we'll see anything remotely resembling comprehensive reform until after the presidential election.''