Showdown at the Border — in Washington

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate is preparing for a Mexican stand-off as several senators are attempting to make their plan for immigration reform the choice of Congress.

Following on the heels of the controversial Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act (HR-4437), proposed by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., and approved by the House of Representatives in December, the Senate Judiciary Committee has been crafting a proposal of its own.

Introduced by the committee’s chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the proposal would increase the number of immigrant visas from 140,000 to 290,000 per year, while creating a separate program and temporarily legalizing the status of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist set a March 27 deadline for the Senate Judiciary Committee’s work, but the Specter plan needs to be reconciled with another proposal (S-1438), introduced late last year by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., chairman of the Subcommittee on Homeland Security. Kyl wants the Senate to take a harder line, with a six-year limit on employment in the United States, a 30-day cap on family visits and $5 billion to increase enforcement along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Yet another proposed immigration reform bill (S-1033), introduced by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., calls for an entirely different approach, based on an open-ended three- to-six-year visa program with the option of permanent resident status for the worker and family members after four years.

McCain staffer Joel Haimsehn said the one thing everyone agrees on is that there’s no agreement. “Nobody has issued a statement, yet, because this is just the beginning of the process,” he said. “In the next few weeks, we might know more.”

Lazarus a Felon?

More than disagreement in the Senate, a variety of business and humanitarian groups, as well as border-protection advocates, are all offering diverse and conflicting visions of what Congress should do to overcome a crisis where up to 700,000 people a year are illegally crossing the southern border into the United States, supporting an underground industry of human and drug smugglers and kidnappers while leaving the nation’s border open to possible infiltration by terrorists.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based immigration research and advocacy group, said any attempt at reforming the current system needs to start with enforcement, which is what the House of Representatives’ legislation was about.

Krikorian said under-funded border protection and an absence of enforcement elsewhere have undermined any serious attempt at preventing illegal entry.

“Our current approach to immigration enforcement is to make it a little harder to get across the border but easier than ever to burrow in once you get to the interior,” he said. “Short of opening the borders altogether, it would be hard to design a policy better suited to increasing illegal immigration.”

Taking the opposite view, the Western Growers Association held a March 15 rally in Washington, D.C., calling on Congress to approve a guest worker program to avert a labor shortage.

“We have heard a great deal of rhetoric from many corners in the past year,” said Western Growers Association President Tom Nassif, “but the fresh produce industry, American agriculture and many other industries, for that matter, can no longer wait.”

He added, “A guest worker program is the key to immigration reform that works. A guest worker program enhances our security, provides a needed legal foreign work force, serves our economy and provides justice for hard working people who contribute a great deal to our society.”

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles has said that if the House legislation became law, he would instruct priests to disregard it because it would make it a felony for doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers and clergymen to, even unknowingly, assist an illegal immigrant. But Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., one of the bill’s authors, said that’s not so.

“We want to target gangs and smugglers,” King told The Window, a weekly e-mailed newsletter written by Deal Hudson, former editor of Crisis magazine.

Still, Cardinal Mahony’s criticism received a lot of media attention, and others characterized the law as unmerciful. Steve Pehanich, executive director of Catholic Charities of California, used the name of the beggar from Luke 16:19-31 to illustrate the cardinal’s point.

“Under (HR-4437), if Lazarus passed through the U.S. southern border without permission, he becomes a felon,” Pehanich said. “Had a kind soul given him a drink of water on the journey, that person too will have committed a felony.”

‘Shared Faith’

Writing together in a joint pastoral letter, Bishops Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Gerald Kicanas of Tucson and Donald Pelotte of Gallup, N.M., along with Bishop William Skurla of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Van Nuys, Calif., said, “We acknowledge the legitimate strain of this crisis on our border communities, ranching families, property owners, the Tohono O’odham Nation, our hospitals and local authorities.”

But, noting the long history of economic and social interdependence along the Arizona-Sonora border, the bishops said, “There is a shared history, faith and heritage in this borderland.”

Since the current federal policy has resulted only in more immigrants making the risky desert crossing where at least 261 died in the attempt in 2005, the bishops called for “common ground among all those affected by this situation, to respond to people’s fears and misunderstandings, and for Arizona to lead the country to a comprehensive and permanent solution to our broken immigration system.”

They said supporting efforts to reduce poverty in Mexico and Latin America is a good start. Next, they also called on Arizona’s Catholics to support legalization of the illegal immigrants already in the United States, and family-based immigration reform, including guest worker programs that protect the rights of illegal-immigrant laborers.

“Our state’s Congressional leaders have begun to lead the way. Let us support and encourage them to remain steadfast in their commitment to just and lasting immigration reform and not settle for an enforcement-only solution.”

Philip S. Moore

is based in Vail, Arizona.