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State immigration group finds fault with national policy
Advocates calling for tuition breaks, better employment terms for undocumented aliens.
By FRED TUCCILLO
At its sharpest edge, the national debate over immigration policy pits those who place a premium on securing the borders against those determined to secure rights for the estimated 11 million undocumented aliens already living in the United States.
"This is a new civil rights movement we are seeing in this country," said Partha Banerjee, executive director of the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network. "The landscape we are living with now is very much akin to the '60s and civil rights."
It is the kind of declaration that highlights the dividing line in the debate between advocacy groups such as the New Jersey coalition and proponents of stiff enforcement of immigration law, who argue that, unlike blacks seeking equal treatment under law in the 1960s, illegal immigrants are not American citizens and cannot invoke the protections of the U.S. Constitution.
But neither could black Americans for most of the nation's history, said Analilia Mejia, program and policy coordinator for the network.
"We went from being a nation that treated African-Americans as chattel to a society that recognized we have rights," she said. "That didn't happen from the top down; it happened from the bottom up."
Banerjee, Mejia and colleague Guy Antoine vigorously argued their case for "inclusiveness and full participation of immigrants" in American life during a meeting with Courier New editors.
Antoine is Haitian program coordinator for the 20-year-old Newark-based network, which Banerjee describes as New Jersey's "only statewide umbrella organization for immigrant rights that cuts across ethnic lines."
The three addressed the competing House and Senate immigration bills still before Congress, as well as their campaign for creation of a state office of immigrant affairs and for legislation that would make undocumented residents eligible for in-state tuition rates at New Jersey's public colleges and universities.
The tuition issue, like many aspects of the immigration debate, centers on the treatment of undocumented aliens already living here. New Jersey and most other states interpret federal law as barring most higher-education aid, including the tuition discount enjoyed by other residents.
"Right now, they are charged as out-of-state foreign students," Mejia said.
At Rutgers, for example, that means paying twice as much as other New Jersey residents.
"These are children who came here when they were very small, who were brought here by their parents," Banerjee said. "They went through primary school and secondary school here."
Some learn of their undocumented status only when they begin the college registration process, Mejia said.
According to an April report by the Education Commission of the States, nine states have passed measures allowing undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition: California, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Washington.
"Supporters point out that most of the children of undocumented immigrants are in the United States to stay," the commission report stated, "and by providing them access to post-secondary education, society benefits as a whole through increased earnings and taxes, and lower crime and poverty rates. ... Critics argue it is unfair to allocate in-state tuition to illegal aliens at a time when many American citizens cannot afford to attend post secondary education."
The argument that rights granted to undocumented or illegal immigrants may come at the expense of legal immigrants and citizens is being made across the full spectrum of immigration policy issues. It is part of the political debate in Washington, where President Bush is pressing congressional negotiators to reconcile the differing immigration bills passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The House bill focuses heavily on border enforcement, making all illegal immigrants subject to felony charges and cracking down on employers who hire illegals. The Senate version includes more money for border security while creating a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country; it also would establish a guest worker program to permit legal entry for new foreign workers.
"The Senate bill is a welcome relief from the House bill, but there are still problems in it," Banerjee said.
The group has issued a position paper that criticizes what it calls anti-immigrant provisions in the Senate version, including:
A "three-tiered approach" that would determine different treatment for undocumented aliens, based on whether they had been in the United States for five years, two years and or less than two years. Mejia said this provision would break up families, whose individual members, including parents and children, may have come into the country years apart.
A guest-worker provision that Banerjee likens to "perpetual indentured servitude for immigrants" because workers would have no path to U.S. citizenship and would have to leave the county as soon as an employer decided to terminate their employment.
Provisions designed to speed deportation, which Banerjee said would deprive refugees, asylum-seekers and other immigrants of the right to any review of their status. They could be deported, he said, "even while their claims are under review by federal courts."
Antoine said this approach is driven by fears of terrorism, unfairly directed at immigrants.
"If you can find a group of people who are easy to put your blame on, it is easy to do," he said.
Involvement of local law enforcement authorities in immigration enforcement, which the network said would "do serious harm to the relationship between police and immigrant communities."
Repeal of foreign language requirements for documents and services provided by federally funded agencies. The network calls this provision biased and said, "We'd be better off providing funding for English classes instead of punishing innocent people."
Use of the U.S. military and construction of a border fence, which Mejia and Banerjee said endangers lives and ignores the disparity of economic opportunity between Mexico and the United States.
"On one side of the border you have completely destitute workers," Banerjee said.
Mejia added, "As long as that exists, people are going to jump that fence or go around it."
All three advocates said they believed recent immigrant rights demonstrations nationally and in New Jersey, including last month's "Day Without an Immigrant" protest, had helped to dramatize and promote the cause of immigrant rights.
"Because so many came out onto the street, talked to reporters, gave their names, risked their jobs, they really showed how much moral uprightness they have to come out and tell their stories," Banerjee said.
The next step, said Mejia, is the political process, where the cause of undocumented immigrants can be aided by the votes of sympathetic citizens, including legal immigrants, many of whom have friends and family members from the same countries of origin who are in the United States illegally.
"Latino immigrants have a phrase: Hoy Marchamos, Manana Votamos," Mejia said. "Today we march, tomorrow we vote. In upcoming elections, we are going to see a surge of new voters. I think we are going to be able to change people's minds."
Fred Tuccillo can be reached at (908) 707-3121 or email@example.com.
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