SENATE OPENS DOOR TO LANDMARK IMMIGRATION REFORM
by Diego Cevallos
coverage of March immigration rights protests
(IPS) MEXICO CITY --
States legislators have opened a door to the most significant immigration reform in 20 years. The Mexican government and Latino activists who have held massive street demonstrations over the past few days are delighted, but observers warn that it is still too early to celebrate.
"We are pleased, although we must not relax our pressure until we are finally considered to be citizens with rights," Enrique Morones told IPS by telephone from San Diego, California, where he heads Border Angels, an immigrant rights group.
On March 28, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved an immigration bill that includes avenues for eventually legalizing more than 10 million undocumented migrants, the non-criminalization of migrants, and temporary visas for some 400,000 guest workers a year.
The full Senate began to debate the bill on Tuesday. The Judiciary Committee's approval of the new bill followed mass marches on an unprecedented scale in the streets of several U.S. cities.
If it makes it through the Senate, the bill would then go to the House of Representatives, where it would have to be reconciled with a very different immigration bill approved in December, which provided for the extension of the fences and walls along the border with Mexico.
At the invitation of organizations like Border Angels and with the support of Catholic Church leaders, hundreds of thousands of Latino immigrants took to the streets at the weekend, particularly in Los Angeles, California.
The demonstrators were calling for a humanitarian reform of immigration law that would recognize the contribution of migrants to the U.S. economy. They also indignantly repudiated the bill approved by the House in December, which provided for criminal penalties on immigrants found to be in the country illegally.
The government of Mexican President Vicente Fox, which has been pressing the United States to undertake comprehensive immigration reform since 2001, applauded the demonstrations and added its voice to the demands. Most of the 40 million Latin American immigrants living in the U.S. are from Mexico.
Mexican Foreign Secretary Ernesto Derbez said on Tuesday that approval of the bill by the Senate Judiciary Committee was a very important step forward, and opened the door to comprehensive reform, which is what Mexico has been demanding for years.
Meanwhile, President Fox said he hoped that the U.S. would reach a definitive settlement on the issue of immigration before the end of the year.
Mexican political scientist Alan Urrutia indicated to IPS that it was still too soon to celebrate. "There's a long road ahead, and it's very possible that the bill approved by the Judiciary Committee may be watered down into a law that is less favourable to immigrants," he said.
"We would all like to have a reasonable law for immigrants, but that's not always possible given U.S. policy and interests, as we have seen over the years," he stated.
The last major reform of U.S. immigration law, which granted an amnesty to undocumented foreigners -- many of whom were Mexican ž was signed by then president Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) in 1986, after five years of debate in the U.S. Congress.
Presidents Fox and George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will meet on Friday in the Mexican resort city of Cancun to review their North American Free Trade Agreement cooperation accords. Fox has indicated that he will take the opportunity to talk to Bush, once again, about the importance of immigration reform.
"Fox should speak up loud and clear at the meeting, and no longer suggest or ask for changes in policy towards migrants, but demand them," Lucas Benitez, leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in the southern U.S. state of Florida, told IPS.
The rural activist from Mexico, who won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2004, called on Fox to act, "relying on the strength that Latinos have shown we have in the United States."
"The weekend marches demonstrated that we are a giant who was asleep, but who has awakened and is angry to see how badly we are treated," he declared.
The Border Angels' Morones made a similar comment about the meeting between Fox and Bush. "Our president should ride the wave of pressure that we are generating, and speak frankly about migration and demand solutions."
In February, the Border Angels organized a caravan of vehicles which travelled from the U.S.-Mexican border to Washington D.C. According to Morones, the journey encouraged many Latino immigrants to take to the streets.
The Border Angels and other organizations have announced another mobilization for Apr. 10. "We still don't know whether it will be a march, a strike, or a fast," Morones said.
In 2005, more than 400,000 Latin American and Caribbean undocumented immigrants entered the U.S., in defiance of existing border controls. One million others were intercepted and deported.
Some sectors in the U.S. legislature and the Bush administration are reluctant to acknowledge the significant contribution of immigrants to the U.S. economy.
In December, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved a bill to build new fences along the border with Mexico, toughen immigration controls ž on the grounds of border security ž and make it a federal crime to offer services or assistance to illegal immigrants.
Fox's government called on the nations of Central America, Colombia and the Dominican Republic to condemn that initiative, and they ultimately expressed their concerns to Washington as a bloc.
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March 27, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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