THE DEBATE OVER IMMIGRATION REFORM

03/28/06

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday approved a comprehensive immigration bill that would create a foreign guest-worker program and put millions of illegal immigrants on track toward permanent residency and U.S. citizenship. The legislation that now goes to the full Senate for debate was approved 12-6 by the Republican-controlled committee and embraces key elements of a bipartisan bill crafted by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. While offering more hope to illegal immigrants living in the United States than a get-tough House bill passed in December, the Senate version also calls for stepped up immigration enforcement -- more than doubling the size of the U.S. Border Patrol over the next five years. The Senate bill differs sharply from a bill passed by the House of Representatives, which calls for toughened enforcement, including the creation of a 700-mile fence along the Southwest border.

Fanned by election-year politics, immigration is one of the nation's most volatile issues, with the public and Congress deeply divided between those calling for tougher enforcement and pro-immigrant groups who seek to protect the estimated 12 million immigrants now in the United States illegally. The Senate committee bill would enable illegal immigrants in the country as of Jan. 7, 2004, to obtain visas and stay in the country for six years while they apply for permanent residency by paying fines and back taxes and demonstrating a proficiency in English and civics. At Specter's insistence, they would have to wait in line'' behind the more than 3 million applicants now seeking green cards through legal channels. Under the guest-worker program, up to 400,000 foreign workers a year could come into the country for up to six years to hold low-skilled jobs bypassed by U.S. workers. They also could apply for permanent residency and citizenship. The committee also agreed to a pilot program that would allow up to 1.5 million undocumented immigrants over a five-year period to hold agricultural jobs under temporary visas. They, too, could apply for green cards to become permanent residents. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that program would ensure a source of legal workers for thousands of agricultural jobs now largely held by undocumented workers drawing low wages. Committee members, rejecting a more hard-line approach by the House, voted against proposed criminal penalties on illegal immigrants. They approved an amendment by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., to shield church and charitable groups from criminal prosecution for providing aid to illegal immigrants. Continuing a chain of recent massive demonstrations across the United States, several thousand immigrants and activists gathered at the Capitol to demand greater legal protections and denounce the House bill, which threatened illegal immigrants with felony prison sentences. Dozens of clergy, handcuffed to each other with plastic strips, hummedWe Shall Overcome'' in the hallway of the Senate building where the Judiciary Committee deliberated.

Our guest was William Galarza, an attorney who practices in Venice, Florida. He's affiliated with the Arcadia-based Organization of United Latino Immigrants of Florida. Galarza discussed why he thinks reform of immigration laws and and path for citizenship for undocumented immigrants should be established by the federal government.

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