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WASHINGTON, Feb 4 2014 (IPS) - Pro-immigration reform advocates here are seeking to capitalise on new federal momentum on the issue after conservative lawmakers ended months of dithering late last week and released an initial set of principles that they would be interested in pursuing in broader negotiations.
FWD.us, an immigration reform advocacy group funded by the technology industry, declared Monday a “day of action”, in which it encouraged the U.S. public to contact key Republican representatives and ask them to support immigration reform proposals.
With 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., exploitation of undocumented workers runs rampant, and families have been torn apart with two million deportations by the Barack Obama administration within the past five years.
Faith-based advocacy groups, one of the conservative cornerstones pushing for immigration reform, have likewise stepped up their efforts. Evangelical Christians emphasise the damaging effect that current immigration laws have on undocumented families.
“More than security and economic reasons, I think [reform] needed for the health of families,” Alex Cosio, a pastor from North Carolina, said during a press call Monday. “Families suffer a lot when they fear someone from their family being caught and deported. [Deportation] tears families apart.”
Cosio also points to the adverse effects that the current immigration system has on undocumented youths who were brought to the United States at a very young age.
“It’s very hard for a parent to tell a kid that they can’t have a driver’s license because they’re not here legally,” he said.
The new Republican guidelines call for increased border security and a “zero tolerance” policy for migrants who have illegally crossed into the United States.
While the guidelines rule out a path to citizenship, a means by which undocumented workers could become fully naturalised U.S. citizens, they permit legalisation for law-abiding undocumented workers provided that they “pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits).”
Last year, the U.S. Senate passed a massive bill to overhaul all aspects of the country’s immigration system. That proposal would have provided a path to citizenship for many of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, yet House Republicans oppose it on the grounds that a path to citizenship amounted to “amnesty” for wrongdoing – an option they have long opposed.
This proposal has since languished as conservatives in the House of Representatives have been unable to decide how – or whether – they wanted to progress on the issue.
Unlike their counterparts in the Senate, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have now indicated that they do not wish to address the issue of immigration in a single, comprehensive bill. Instead they prefer to address various issues related to the broad topic through piecemeal legislation, potentially setting up conflict later on.
Still, the fact that House Republicans are now actively discussing the issue has given many proponents of immigration reform a renewed sense of optimism. Indeed, on some issues, the new Republican principles offer clear-cut ideological about-faces.
The new principles support, for instance, a path to legal residence and citizenship for undocumented youth who receive a college degree or serve in the military. This would closely align with provisions laid out in the earlier Democratic-proposed legislation – known as the DREAM Act – that some Republican legislators opposed.
Congress’s failed attempts to pass the DREAM Act multiple times since 2001 prompted President Obama to issue an executive order that halted the deportation of undocumented youths who met certain requirements.
“I do think that for those who qualify under laws and rules laid out for DREAM students, we can be assured that they’ll become a great asset to our nation,” Noel Castellanos, the head of the Christian Community Development Association, a faith-based community development group, told IPS. “Not every one of these young people will end up going to school, but some will serve in our military and contribute great works to serve our country.”
In addition to the Christian right, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the country’s largest business lobby group, welcomed the Republican reform principles.
“Immigration reform is an essential element of economic growth and it will create American jobs,” Thomas J. Donahue, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. “The time is now, and the Chamber is determined to make 2014 the year that immigration reform is finally enacted.”
While conservative advocacy groups warmly embraced the Republican guidelines, some liberal advocates have been less thrilled.
America’s Voice, a Washington-based immigrant advocacy group, is pointing out that Republicans are insisting on strengthening security along the U.S.-Mexico border before allowing any legalisation for undocumented migrants to go forward.
Such a stance, the group warns, obscures the fact that spending on border security is already incredibly high.
“The U.S. government spends 18 billion dollars a year on immigration enforcement, more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined,” the group states in analysis sent to IPS. “The Border Patrol has doubled in recent years to a record high of 21,000 agents, and net unauthorised immigration into the U.S. is zero.”
“Nevertheless, Republicans are dusting off the old ‘enforcement-first’ talking points, pretending that immigration enforcement is currently lacking,” the groups says.
Labour rights advocates have also condemned House Republicans’ refusal to create a valid path to citizenship on the grounds that it will depress wages for everyone residing in the United States.
“Until we create a functioning immigration system with a pathway to citizenship, ruthless employers will continue to exploit low wage workers, pulling down wages for all,” Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, a lobbying group representing multiple labour unions, noted Monday.
“All workers, immigrant or not, will see workplaces become safer and wages grow higher when we create a real roadmap to citizenship. And yet Republicans not only reject citizenship but embrace a broken guest worker model that will bring down wages and increase income inequality.”
It is unclear exactly how, or even if, the congressional discussion will now progress, with Republicans still unsure as to whether they will unite behind the new principles.
On Sunday, Representative Paul Ryan, a leading intellectual in the Republican party, told the media it was “clearly in doubt” whether Congress would pass any immigration reform legislation this year. National elections, after all, are scheduled for late this year, and immigration remains a hot-button issue for many in the Republican base.
Still, others see a possible window for action after Republican candidates have been chosen for the election in primary campaigns.
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