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Democrats Up Ante to Reform Immigration

THE NATION

August 03, 2001|JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In a push for a broadly inclusive immigration plan, House and Senate Democrats on Thursday said the United States should create a program to legalize undocumented workers of all nationalities and that such employees should enjoy the same labor rights as everyone else.

The Democratic manifesto, which comes just a week after President Bush hinted that all unlawful immigrants may be considered in his new legalization approach, suggests that the debate has broadened beyond U.S.-Mexico issues and could become the most sweeping examination of immigration policy in 15 years.

Democratic leaders, who had been relatively quiet as recent White House talks with Mexico stirred up the immigration issue, sought to assert themselves in a debate that could extend into next year and beyond. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and other Democratic lawmakers endorsed expanded immigration to unify families; an enhanced program of guest workers, opening up new avenues for legalization; and greater freedom of movement between the United States and an immigrant's home country.

Pointedly, the Democrats made clear that their strategy extends far beyond Mexico, noting that many undocumented U.S. residents are from other Latin American countries as well as Canada, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa and Europe.

"We welcome the efforts of President Bush and [Mexican] President [Vicente] Fox," Gephardt declared. "But we must do more to help more immigrants." Democrats "have always understood the essential role that immigration has played in our history and the significant contribution immigrants have made to our economy."

Yet even as the Democrats' statement of principles encouraged immigrant advocates, it raised concerns among those who are skeptical about amnesty and would prefer stricter limitations on entry into this country. Bush administration officials are wrestling with such issues as they negotiate with Mexico over immigration policy in preparation for Fox's visit to the United States in early September.

The Democratic principles are similar to some of the administration's ideas but suggest a more open approach to legalizing immigrants and, ultimately, granting them citizenship. Both parties would like to benefit from the nation's burgeoning population of Latinos.

"The issue is clearly snowballing," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors tighter controls on immigration. "The Democrats are going to want more and more. More amnesty for illegals. More exceptions to the immigration law. And the Republicans at some point have to make a decision: Do they try to one-up the Democrats in a me-too approach, or do they try to clarify a distinct position?"

On Thursday, Democrats cited a "historic opportunity to re-craft our immigration policies in ways that better reflect our core values." Party leaders shied away from technical details and numbers but made clear their intent to grant legality to a wide assortment of the 6 million to 8 million immigrants in this country illegally. Democrats called for:

* Allowing more immigrants into the United States to reunite families. "The fact that a sibling of a United States citizen" who was born in another country must often wait many years to immigrate legally "is just one example of our unjust immigration policy," the Democrats said.

* A program of "earned legalization." Such an approach would target "longtime, hard-working residents of good moral character, with no criminal problems . . . who are otherwise eligible to become U.S. citizens." Permanent residence should go to those enrolled in English language and civics courses and able to show community ties, the Democrats said.

* An expanded program of temporary workers, paving the way for them to have permanent immigrant status and eventual citizenship. The current guest worker program is largely designed to allow immigrants to stay in the country temporarily--to relieve a shortage of strawberry pickers, for example--and treats them differently than American employees. The Democratic proposal argues that such workers should have the same labor rights as U.S. citizens, including the right to organize. The workers also would have the right to bring their families with them.

* Enhanced border safety. Border patrol agents should be given sufficient resources to enforce immigration laws and facilitate orderly entry into the United States, the Democrats said.

The Democratic initiative follows reports that U.S. and Mexican Cabinet officials have been considering ways to legalize many of the estimated 3 million to 4 million undocumented Mexicans in this country and discussing a new guest worker program. Those disclosures last month excited many immigrant communities in the U.S., unleashing new pressures for some sort of legalization effort.

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