Push needed for immigration reform

The physical and emotional pain of dozens of immigrants and their children was palpable recently when a congressional delegation walked into a room at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in Postville, Iowa.

The town still suffers almost three months after 389 immigrants were arrested at a local meat processing plant and then detained at a cattle exhibit hall. At this meeting with three members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, their stories of inhumane treatment at work and legal injustices after the arrests came tumbling out.

There was a 16-year-old who worked on the kill floor of the plant — he was under the legal age limit for the job — who labored 17-hour shifts, six days a week, without overtime. There was a man who had lost his hand. There were women who were sexually exploited if they wanted a shift change.

In May, hundreds of federal agents stormed into the Agriprocessors Inc. plant, rounded up workers like cattle and chuted them through a pre-scripted legal process that cut off their legal rights to defend themselves against unusually harsh felony “aggravated identity theft” charges. Families are separated and women are wearing electronic homing bracelets pending the conclusions of their cases.

After meeting with the immigrants, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) had a question for presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, the Arizona senator who once worked on Gutierrez’s comprehensive immigration reform plan.

“Is this his ‘enforcement only’ plan?” Gutierrez asked chidingly. “How many more years of this do we have to have before we have comprehensive [reform]? How many more Postvilles do we have to have?”

Of course, Gutierrez backs Democrat Barack Obama for president, but he also was disappointed last year when McCain stepped back from the broad immigration plan they had collaborated on and began insisting that “border security” must come first.

But the questions should be posed, not only to McCain, but to others who have failed to step up and lead.

Obama needs to be pressed on immediate immigration fixes, and so does the Democratic Congress, which has refused to take up a big reform package until next year at the earliest.

And do not forget President Bush, who once stood for the comprehensive immigration plan until it failed last year in the Senate. Now, as Bush’s lame duck presidency limps to an end, he has turned his back to Postville while reserving his compassion for oil companies.

It is highly unlikely that Bush will grant Gutierrez’s request for a moratorium on immigration raids until a better solution is in place.

“You know who is in charge now? The Gestapo agents at [the Department of] Homeland Security. They are in charge,” Gutierrez said. “I think it is election season, and they have decided it did not work for us one way [with comprehensive reform], so let’s try to exploit it politically another way” through harsh enforcement.

Enforcement only, without also figuring out how to legalize 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country or refining the rules for employers who hire illegal immigrants, is exactly what conservatives want in this election year.

The Center for Immigration Studies, which favors strict limits on legal and illegal immigration, recently concluded that, in addition to a sinking economy, “increased enforcement seems to have played a significant role” in reducing the illegal immigrant population over a nine-month period ending in May.

The accuracy of the center’s calculations were highly criticized by immigrant advocates, but the center stuck to its argument that “muscular enforcement” can “induce” illegal residents to return to their home countries.

Heeding the criticism that immigration enforcers have unnecessarily disrupted families, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is testing a 17-day program in five cities that asks 457,000 non-criminal illegal immigrants who ignored deportation orders to turn themselves in. Coordinating their departures with ICE will “ease their transition and minimize the impact of their removal on their loved ones,” the agency said.

Legal family members of the illegal immigrants are invited to leave the country as well.

The plan would be laughable if the issue were not so serious, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which wants an overhaul of immigration laws that combines tougher enforcement with expanded visa programs and earned legalization.

“Call me crazy, but I doubt that [test program] sends the message to Latino voters that the Republican Party understands the complexity of this issue and supports practical solutions,” Sharry said, referring to the competition for the Latino vote in the November election.

Postville is the poster board for the broken immigration system.

The federal government’s chase of illegal immigrants at the meat plant disrupted a Labor Department probe into unfair work and wage practices by the owners. Critics have accused ICE of being more aggressive about prosecuting minor immigration violations than punishing employers.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union found a government “manual” given to lawyers assigned to defend the workers. The package included scripts for plea and sentencing hearings, which the ACLU said resulted in undermining the immigrants’ ability to understand the charges against them and receive full hearings.

Filled with fear, most of those arrested agreed to waive their rights, plead guilty to lesser charges and spend five months in prison before being deported. The alternative was to spend at least six months in jail while waiting for a trial, risk being sentenced to at least two years in prison, and still be deported.

Gutierrez likened the process to indicting a person for murder without any evidence. In this case, where many are claiming innocence of the identity theft charges, “we prosecuted the people we should be protecting. It corrupts our judicial system and it undermines our values.”

While Democrats plan to hold a congressional hearing in Postville next month, efforts also are underway on incremental measures to help legal immigrant workers and their employers.

Fixes to the E-Verify electronic employment verification system were approved by the House last week.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) also proposed a new bill that would invest federal dollars in English literacy and civics programs for adults and school children and give a 20 percent tax credit to employers who provide English and GED instruction.

The point of the bipartisan-backed bill is to promote immigrants’ desires to integrate in American society rather than focus on “English-only” and other aspects of the immigration debate that fuel rancor, said Peter Zamora of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“There’s hot air fatigue. Members [of Congress] now recognize they were elected to get something done, not just fulminate about a class of people,” Zamora said.

Maybe. But nothing will be done before the November elections, and not soon enough for the people in Postville.

Gebe Martinez is a longtime journalist in Washington and a frequent lecturer and commentator on the policy and politics of Capitol Hill.

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