28 March 2006

Sweeping US immigration laws approved

Irish Examiner

28/03/2006 - 7:04:16 AM

The US Senate Judiciary Committee has approved sweeping election-year immigration legislation that would clear the way for 11 million illegal aliens to seek US citizenship without having to leave the country first.

After days of street demonstrations that stretched from California to the grounds of the US capital, a coalition of Democrats and Republicans also agreed to strip out proposed criminal penalties for residents found to be in this country illegally.

“All Americans wanted fairness, and they got it this evening,” said Senator Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who played a pivotal role in drafting the legislation.

The legislation still must pass the full Senate, and its differences with an immigration in the House of Representatives must be resolved before a final act is sent to President George Bush for signing into law. That will probably take months.

In general, the bill is designed to strengthen the Border Patrol, create new opportunities for so-called guest workers and determine the legal future of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the US illegally.

In purely political terms, the issue threatened to fracture Republicans as they head into the congressional election campaign: one group is eager to make labour readily available for low-wage jobs in industries such as agriculture, construction and meatpacking; the other is determined to place a higher emphasis on law enforcement.

That was a split Bush was hoping to avoid after a political career spent building support for himself and his party from Hispanics, now the largest minority population in the country.

The committee met as several thousand demonstrators rallied. Many were members of the clergy who donned handcuffs and sang “We Shall Overcome”, the unofficial anthem of the civil rights era.


“The first Christian value is love thy neighbour,” read some of the signs.

After a weekend of enormous rallies – as many as 500,000 people in Los Angeles, California – thousands of students walked out of class in California and Texas to protest proposals in Congress to crack down on illegals.

In Detroit, protesters waved Mexican flags as they marched to a downtown federal office building.

Senators on all sides of the issue agreed that illegal workers hold thousands of jobs that otherwise would go unfilled at the wages offered.

The agriculture industry is “almost entirely dependent on undocumented workers”, said Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the state with the nation’s largest agricultural industry. “It is unrealistic to think the workers will go home, because they work here and the agriculture industry is dependent on them.”

“America should not have to choose between being a welcoming society and being a lawful society,” Bush said. ”We can be both at the same time.”

He has said he favours a guest worker program, but it is unclear whether the administration would insist on a provision to require illegal immigrants already in the country to return home before they are allowed to apply for citizenship.

The panel agreed with ease to double the size of the Border Patrol over the next several years and decided on a closer vote to make sure that humanitarian organisations are sheltered from prosecution should they provide non-emergency assistance to illegal residents.

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