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Immigrant advocates form a plan

Wish list of reform measures includes path to legalization for most of the 11million undocumented migrants in the U.S.

March 17, 2007|Teresa Watanabe and Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writers

Determined to win reform legislation this year, California immigrant advocates and others are seeking to better coordinate their movement's efforts by launching a $4-million national lobbying campaign and a "unity blueprint" laying out their policy goals.

As Congress prepares to restart debate over immigration reform, the dual actions are aimed at seizing the political offensive and bridging internal differences among advocacy groups over such issues as a guest worker program.

Without unity, activists say, they could fail to win reform before the 2008 political campaign season gets in full gear and potentially jeopardizes their chance of success.

"This year, more than ever, we really want to make sure we're as united as possible," said Angelica Salas of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "If we hit the 2008 election season without a bill, I think we'll be in a much worse position."

The lobbying campaign was announced this week in Washington, D.C., by a coalition of national policy groups, labor unions, religious and ethnic organizations and advocates for illegal immigrants. Campaign manager Clarissa Martinez De Castro said the effort would feature the same fervor and tactics as a national election, including a multimillion-dollar war chest and field operations in 30 key states.

The 21-page "Unity Blueprint for Immigration Reform," conceived over the last few months under the leadership of Los Angeles area labor and community activists, presents a comprehensive wish list of measures. Activists consulted with more than 150 organizations in California, Texas and Arizona and plan to begin presenting it to congressional members next week.

The blueprint urges a path to legalization for nearly all of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants. It advocates stronger labor protections and an expansion of permanent visas for workers, rejecting a temporary guest worker program as exploitative.

The document also calls for a repeal of some enforcement measures adopted in the last decade, including funding for a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border and sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants. It also supports stronger family rights, including more visas for relatives of U.S. citizens and new ways to win legal status for undocumented immigrant parents.

Activists say that last year's fast-moving action on immigration issues -- a flurry of legislative proposals, massive rallies and national congressional hearings -- left them with little time to craft their own policy vision.

"Civic and labor organizations around the country found themselves on the defensive in 2006, as members of Congress pulled one proposal after another out of their back pocket," said Peter Schey, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. "There was a broad sense of frustration at not having an affirmative position to put forward."

Immigration control groups criticized the blueprint proposals and dismissed their chance of success. Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform called the blueprint a "pretty radical agenda" that would be ignored even by the Democrat-controlled Congress.

Caroline Espinosa, spokeswoman for NumbersUSA, a Virginia-based immigration control group, said the reform blueprint would give immigrants more rights than U.S. citizens.

"It's the height of arrogance for someone to come to the U.S., break the law and then ask Congress to overturn or ignore the laws to their benefit," she said.

Activists said the blueprint reflected consistent academic research showing that immigration is good for America, that current visa levels are artificially low and that a large underclass of illegal migrants serves no one except unscrupulous employers who exploit them. They acknowledged that many of the provisions would be seen as politically unrealistic but said they expressed their highest hopes for immigration reform.

"Why shouldn't we ask for everything?" said Pablo Alvarado, president of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. "These are our dreams."

Proposals on temporary workers proved the most divisive, the activists said. Some advocacy groups have reluctantly accepted as the price of compromise a call by President Bush and U.S. business groups for more temporary foreign workers to fill a shortfall in low-skilled labor. Other groups have rejected any temporary worker plan as exploitative of immigrant labor and harmful to American workers.

The blueprint has won the backing of the AFL-CIO and other major labor unions by rejecting guest workers in favor of more permanent visas for foreign laborers, subject to stronger workplace protections and stricter tests on whether Americans are available for those jobs.

Another point of contention among activists is how much to compromise with Congress. Last year, for instance, the Mexican American Political Assn. boycotted the National Council of La Raza's conference in Los Angeles to protest the council's support of a Senate bill's temporary-worker provisions and partial legalization for illegal immigrants.

"Lowering your aspirations and accepting what your adversaries put on the table ... is absolutely unacceptable to us," said Nativo Lopez of the Mexican American association.

For now, however, unity is the watchword.

"We all need to work together to win," Salas said.


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