Over the past few weeks, people have turned out in historic proportions (more than half a million demonstrated on March 25 in Los Angeles alone) throughout the country to protest a House bill that would make it a felony to be an illegal immigrant. Almost as if in response, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill on March 27 that is much more immigrant friendly than its House counterpart. Although it has some tough enforcement measures, the Senate bill contains an amnesty program for undocumented immigrants, provided they are able to fulfill a number of conditions.
Egged on by the party's social conservative base and anti-immigrant groups such as Federation for American Immigration Reform, the House Republicans had passed a bill in December that would not only make it a felony to be in the United States without proper documents, but also a crime to aid such people. Compelled by the latter provision, the Roman Catholic Church played a significant role in organizing the protests. Many immigrant groups mobilized huge numbers of people, too.
“It's unbelievable,” says Partha Banerjee, director of the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network. “People are joining in so spontaneously, it's almost like the immigrants have risen. I would call it a civil rights movement reborn in this country.”
Even some Republicans, such as Senator John McCain, have taken notice of these demonstrations, and have acknowledged that the turnout played a key role in pushing the Senate bill through the Judiciary Committee.
Unfortunately, it’s not over. Some Republican senators have vowed to defeat the bill on the floor. “I will oppose amnesty at all stages,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas. And then whatever emerges out of the Senate will have to be reconciled with the hardline House version.
President Bush is caught between his business backers and the anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party, and is favoring a deeply problematic proposal with a massive guestworker program.
Immigrant advocates are keeping up the pressure, as more protests are planned across the country on April 10.
“Essentially, we are at a time when a lot of politicians are scared to vote for the interests of immigrant communities,” says Douglas Rivlin of the National Immigration Forum. “We are quickly approaching the time when they will be scared to vote against immigrant communities.”