Seeking a preelection political push, Latino activists converged on party offices in the Los Angeles area Thursday demanding support for legislation that would grant amnesty to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants and ease rules for many others who have lived for years in legal limbo.
The chief target was GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush, whose Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill have blocked approval of a bill dubbed the Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act, sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).
"The Republicans are courting the Latino vote, but they don't want to vote for us," Angela Sanbrano said outside the Republican Club of Pasadena, its windows plastered with Bush / Cheney posters. Sanbrano is executive director of the Central American Resource Center.
As part of a nationwide mobilization, some of the activists began a symbolic two-day fast across the street from the Republican storefront in Pasadena.
Immigrant advocates and their allies are trying to use the growing Latino electoral presence as a wedge to convince the GOP to accept the legislation. The sweeping bill would be the culmination of years of effort on behalf of people facing potential deportation.
Democratic lawmakers are pushing to have the bill passed before Congress' scheduled adjournment next month.
The bill, according to unofficial estimates, could help more than 800,000 people--mostly longtime U.S. residents, many with children who are U.S. citizens--obtain green cards in coming years. Southern California would probably lead the nation in potential beneficiaries.
Republicans and other opponents call the legislative package a blatant preelection move that rewards lawbreakers and encourages illicit immigration.
"We are a government of laws, and they are here illegally," said John Lampmann, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who heads the House Immigration Subcommittee. "When you encourage people to come in illegally, which amnesties do, you're undercutting the opportunity for those who have played by the rules."
In Pasadena, the protesters expressed outrage that they were not allowed to enter the GOP office to deliver a letter addressed to Bush demanding the candidate's support. Thom Christy, a volunteer at the site, said he feared their presence might distract campaign volunteers.
The protesters were later greeted warmly outside Democratic Party headquarters in West Los Angeles. The Clinton administration has backed the immigration bill.
A major portion of the measure would update the federal government's so-called registry program to provide lawful status to illegal immigrants and others who have lived in the United States since 1986. The current cutoff date is 1972.
"My family is here, my life is here," said Ever Guzman, a 32-year-old native of Guatemala who was among those protesting in favor of an amnesty.
Guzman, a homeowner in Ventura County, described himself as a real estate broker in the San Fernando Valley and the father of two U.S.-born children. He also said he does not have permanent immigration status though he has lived in the United States for almost 20 years.
The bill would also allow hundred of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans and Haitians now facing deportation to receive green cards if they have been living in the United States since December 1995. This would provide these groups with the same treatment accorded to Nicaraguans and Cubans under a 1997 law.
Most of the Central Americans and Haitians who would be affected--community groups put the nationwide numbers at more than 300,000--are residing here on temporary permits. Their deportation cases are pending before judges.
"I don't know anyone in El Salvador," said Jose Panameno, 22, who arrived as a teenager from Central America and was among the protesters Thursday in Pasadena. He is fighting deportation as he studies computer science at Los Angeles City College.
"I can't imagine what kind of a future I would face back there," Panameno said as he stood in line across from the GOP offices.
The proposed law's third prong would allow tens of thousands of illegal immigrants eligible for green cards each year to apply for lawful status without returning to their home countries. Under current law, many fear leaving the United States because they may be barred from returning for up to 10 years.