[quote]For millions of immigrants, Senate debate is a defining moment
Thursday, March 02, 2006
BY BRIAN DONOHUE
Ever since he fled Ecuador's collapsing economy on a crowded fishing boat and arrived in the United States in 2000, Juan Espinosa has struggled, obtaining low-paying jobs with a fake Social Security card and fighting depression caused by the separation from his wife and three children back home.
Now, his life and those of an estimated 400,000 other illegal immigrants in New Jersey may be reaching a crossroads.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin a long-awaited debate today over whether to legalize the status of more than 11 million undocumented aliens living in the country or declare them criminals who must be deported.
If Congress chooses the legalization route, Espinosa, a 46-year-old sign salesman living in Belleville, says he'll get a driver's license, buy a car and start his own business. If lawmakers decide to crack down, he said, he will be forced even deeper underground.
"If one bill passes, we will be declared criminals, like terrorists,"
said Espinosa, a school teacher in Ecuador who lost his life savings when his country's banking system collapsed in 2000. "With the other, I will be able to see my family, to work with dignity. It can change everything fundamentally."
Under current federal law, Espinosa is not eligible for a work visa or a green card.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who introduced the measure last week, said he hopes his bill will serve as the starting point for a debate on immigration reform.
The proposal includes elements from other bills that have been introduced over the past several years, such as tougher enforcement measures to combat illegal immigration and a program to legalize the status of those working illegally in the United States.
Specifically, Specter's bill would:
Create a guest worker program to allow foreigners to work legally in the country for three years, with possible extensions for another three years. President Bush has already voiced his support for this program.
Require employers to check all workers against a list of Social Security numbers to ensure they are legally authorized to work. Such checks are now voluntary and rarely conducted.
Tighten deportation laws, authorize the hiring of more immigration enforcement agents and require the Department of Homeland Security to submit plans for greater border surveillance.
Increase the number of green cards issued each year.
"It is in our national security interest to better protect our borders," Specter said in a letter to other Judiciary Committee members. "Similarly, it is in our nation's economic interest that we address the need for labor in this country so that employers are able to find and hire available workers.
"The committee must grapple with a realistic means of bringing out from the shadows the possible 11 million illegal aliens in the United States," the letter said.
Specter said he hopes his bill makes it to the full Senate by the end of the month.
The debate promises to split a Republican Party already divided on the issue of immigration. It also promises to lead to a showdown with the House of Representatives.
In December, the House passed an enforcement-only bill that beefs up border security and changes illegal entry from a civil to a criminal offense. The legislation, however, does not create new ways for illegal immigrants to legalize their status.
Conservatives in the Senate hope to remove the guest worker provision in Specter's bill to reconcile it with the House bill sponsored by Rep.
James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).
Since Specter's bill was introduced last Friday, advocates on both sides of the immigration debate have denounced it.
Those supporting tougher restrictions said it could open the floodgates to a huge wave of immigrants.
"It is a piece of social policy that has the most profound implication for America one could possibly imagine," said Steve Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., which favors lower immigration levels. "Experience shows there is no end to the number of people who potentially would come."
Advocates say the bill does not provide a way for immigrants to permanently legalize their status and predict it would create a permanent underclass of foreign guest workers who would not participate in their communities.
"There's no reason to create a subclass when we have a perfectly valid status we can offer people," said Amy Gottlieb, program director with the American Friends Service Committee in Newark.
As for the bill's tougher enforcement measures, Gottlieb said, "Immigration is only going to stop if the factors that drive immigration change. We can build walls, but people are going to find a way in if their needs are not being met."
Under Specter's bill, all undocumented aliens working in the United States as of Jan. 4, 2004 -- the date Bush announced his plan for a guest worker program -- would be allowed to apply for a three-year work visa. That visa would be renewable for another three years after that.
But unlike an earlier Senate bill sponsored by Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), the temporary workers would not be eligible for green cards or citizenship.
Unless Congress can reach an agreement in the next few months, most observers say it is unlikely Specter's bill will pass since few members of Congress will want to cast a vote on such a volatile issue in an election year.
That could leave millions of undocumented immigrants in limbo and result in hundreds of thousands of others pouring across the nation's borders.
Either way, Espinosa, the immigrant from Ecuador, says he'll still stay here, trying to earn a living for himself and his family back home.
"I can't go back," he said. "There's just no work. This is just survival."
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