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Border Security Bill Raises Concerns

Aid groups that assist immigrants -- including the undocumented -- fear pending federal legislation could criminalize such work.

January 16, 2006|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Standing in front of two dozen immigrants at a town hall meeting in the Pico-Union neighborhood, attorney Robert Foss explained what to do if stopped by la migra.

"Defend yourself with silence," he told the group. "A lot of people get deported by their own voices."

Immigrants go to the Central American Resource Center seeking legal advice, job training and other services. The center has been helping immigrants -- many of them undocumented -- since it was founded in 1983 by refugees fleeing civil war in El Salvador and Guatemala.

But officials at the center, along with other aid groups and churches, fear that pending congressional legislation could criminalize the work they do helping illegal immigrants. The U.S. Senate is poised to begin debate in February on the legislation, designed to improve border security and crack down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants.

The bill would expand the definition of smuggling to include anyone who "assists" or "directs" an illegal immigrant to reside or remain in the United States. Violations could lead to five years in prison.

"It's a very cruel bill," said the center's executive director, Angela Sanbrano. "We don't look at people as legal or illegal.... We provide services to the community."

The bill's author disputes that it would make criminals out of aid groups that assist illegal immigrants.

"It's completely false," said Jeff Lungren, spokesman for Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.). "That's not the focus."

Lungren said the goal was to improve the federal government's ability to combat immigrant smuggling -- not to go after churches and aid groups. Such organizations, he said, were trying to mislead the public about the intent of the law.

But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, said he believed the provision also would give prosecutors a way to go after religious or human rights groups that were "promoting illegal immigration but doing so under the cover of legitimate activity."

"Anyone who is promoting illegal immigration is doing something wrong," Krikorian said.

Because the wording of the smuggling provision is vague, aid organizations question whether it could also apply to church leaders, attorneys, tax preparers, employers, banks, doctors or even family members. They say running day-laborer centers or teaching English to immigrants could lead to criminal prosecution.

Antonio Gonzalez, who arrived from Mexico in 1981, has a green card, but his wife and 16-year-old son are here illegally. Gonzalez worries that if the bill becomes law, he could be thrown in jail for helping family members.

"It's an unjust law that shouldn't pass," said Gonzalez, 39. "They are treating us like criminals."

The U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops has joined the campaign against the bill, writing letters to legislators and speaking out against the provision. The bishops believe that parish and social service staff members -- who represent immigrants in court, run day-laborer centers and offer shelter to immigrant youths -- could be at risk of criminal prosecution simply for doing their jobs.

"We think it is an extreme measure," said Auxiliary Bishop Rutilio del Riego of the San Bernardino Diocese. "We cannot criminalize acts of kindness, acts of assistance to people in great need."

Several immigrant rights advocates said they planned to continue assisting immigrants without asking if they are here legally, regardless of the outcome of the bill.

Among those is Enrique Morones, whose group Border Angels helps migrants by placing water and blankets along popular crossing routes. Morones said nobody was coming across for the water but that it could save the lives of some who found themselves dehydrated in the desert.

"We respond to a much higher authority than Sensenbrenner," Morones said. "We totally denounce this bill and the criminalization of humanitarian work."

If the bill passes, prosecutors would have discretion to decide how to interpret the language in the law and whom to go after, said Hiroshi Motomura, an immigration law professor at the University of North Carolina. Even if the sponsor does not intend for the bill to target churches and aid groups, that nevertheless could happen, he said.

In addition, Motomura said the proposed legislation was based on the premise that it is easy to quickly determine who is in the U.S. illegally and who is not.

"It's not a black-or-white thing to know who is here illegally," Motomura said, "and that is what makes the actual application of this bill also discretionary."

The smuggling provisions would probably be challenged in court, according to the National Immigration Law Center.

"Given the anti-immigrant sentiment, there are places in the country where I could see at least attempts to prosecute this," said Marielena Hincapie, director of programs for the Los Angeles office.

At last week's meeting at the Central American Resource Center, Foss gave tips on how immigrants can persuade officials and judges that they should qualify for residency.

"It's easy to convince me," he said. "I believe everyone. But it's difficult to win in court."

Mexican immigrant Marbella Iraheta, 25, and her husband Ernesto, 31, from El Salvador, have been in the United States for 15 years. They have work permits but came to the meeting to find out whether they could qualify for permanent residency.

Marbella Iraheta said having such places as the Central American Resource Center to go to for advice was crucial.

"It's what we need," she said. "The information that we have at hand is very limited."

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