No End in Sight to Immigration Debate

Those who brand provisions of the immigration bill as "amnesty" for undocumented workers reflect a deep cynicism that promises to slow down the debate over the process.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

NPR's Jennifer Ludden, who covers immigration, has been listening in. And Jennifer, I'm curious if you think this debate is anywhere near ending at this point.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: No, and what I heard there from the senator really is a lot of hangover lack of faith from what he mentioned, the 1986 amnesty. And back then amnesty wasn't a dirty word. President Ronald Reagan put this bill through, and what happened was the legalization part of that bill worked, the enforcement part did not. This really was a bit of a wink and a nod in this country for two decades.

INSKEEP: You mean getting tough on employers and so forth.

LUDDEN: The workplace enforcement wasn't workable, according to businesses. And the government did not really enforce the law. There hasn't been the rule of law in immigration law for two decades. And you can hear people are still very cynical that whatever you put in this bill today, it will actually be carried out.

INSKEEP: So this debate does on at least until June in the U.S. Senate, then you have the House and who knows what after that. What's happening around the country while this debate goes on in Washington?

LUDDEN: You have states and localities trying to do what they can in the absence of a real federal overhaul here. Just yesterday in Farmers Branch, Texas, we had another lawsuit against a local anti-illegal immigration ordinance. The town, the first place in the country that had a popular vote and overwhelmingly voted to fine landlords who rent to illegal immigrants. And now rights groups have stepped in and that law is on hold while these all goes to the court system.

INSKEEP: Okay. We'll continue following that. NPR's Jennifer Ludden, thank very much.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

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Immigration Proposal Draws Mixed Reaction

Immigration Reform Bill

hide captionU.S. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), left, shakes hands with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff looks on during a news conference to announce a compromise on immigration legislation between the White House and the Senate.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The proposed immigration overhaul announced last week by the White House and a bipartisan group of senators has something for everyone to love — or hate. The proposal, which offers legal status to most of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants and also toughens border security, has drawn mixed reactions. Here, a look at the major interest groups and what they've said about the bill:

Agriculture

For the proposal. America's growers have long complained that a shortage of low-wage workers has meant that tons of fruits and vegetables have gone unpicked. Some 20 percent to 30 percent of California's peach harvest was lost last year because of a lack of pickers, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation. Farmers also saw losses on plums, nectarines and other crops, racking up losses estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars. "We're looking at the failure of farms and small businesses," says Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.

What growers like about the proposed immigration overhaul is that it includes a pilot program for legalizing agricultural workers. Farm hands who have worked in the U.S. for at least 150 days in the past two years would be able to legalize their immigration status. The number of workers would be capped at 1.5 million.

Labor Unions

Divided support. Traditionally, unions have argued that illegal immigrants take away jobs from Americans and drive down wages for all workers in the country. Big unions, such as the AFL-CIO, support the amnesty provision in the bill but are adamantly opposed to guest-worker programs, which they claim create a "disenfranchised underclass of workers." So they'll be fighting against the compromise proposal. But the labor movement is divided. Two influential unions — the Service Employees International Union and Unite Here, which represents hotel and garment industry workers — count many immigrants among their members, and they're likely to support elements in the proposed overhaul.

Big Business

Divided support. The country's major employers helped shape the compromise legislation, but they're not happy with the result. They worry that it won't solve the coming shortage of workers, especially low-skilled ones. The new point system, they say, would favor more highly skilled workers. Yet the Labor Department estimates that 37 percent of all new jobs in the next decade will be filled by people with a high school education or less. Of the 10 occupations expected to see the largest job growth, only two require a college degree. Employers also complain that the proposed legislation requires them to check an electronic database to determine a worker's immigration status. Susan R. Meisinger, president of the Society for Human Resource Management, which represents 215,000 executives, called the proposed system "unworkable."

On the other hand, technology companies such as Intel, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard have been pushing to boost the number of high-skill workers allowed to enter the U.S. The proposal would do just that, increasing the annual cap for temporary work visas, known as H-1Bs, from 65,000 to 115,000. High-tech firms would also like to see those workers get their green cards sooner. Currently, that process can take as long as five years — and it's not clear whether the new proposal would speed up that process. "What we are very concerned about is creating a new backlog on top of an existing one," says Robert Hoffman, spokesman for Oracle, in an interview with BusinessWeek magazine.

Mexico

Divided support. The Mexican government has spent years lobbying the U.S. for a comprehensive immigration plan that would allow more people to work legally in the United States. A spokesman cautiously welcomes the new proposal, calling it an "opportunity." But others in Mexico expressed concern that it doesn't let enough Mexicans enter the United States legally to work, and makes it difficult for those who have entered illegally to change their status.

The Catholic Church

For the proposal, with reservations. The Catholic Church has no immediate stake in the immigration debate, but it has advocated for a "just and comprehensive" immigration overhaul. At least one church, in Chicago, has granted sanctuary to an illegal immigrant facing deportation, and other churches across the country say they plan to do the same.

The church called the proposed program a "step in the right direction" but expressed "significant reservations." Church officials are particularly concerned that it will place severe restrictions on the number of family members immigrants can sponsor for visas. "We are very concerned about provisions that could lead to separating families and disrupting family life," said Bishop Gerald R. Barnes of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Minutemen

Divided support. The self-described guardians of the U.S.-Mexico border have long called for beefing up patrols of the border, and the new proposal does just that. It calls for 18,000 new Border Patrol agents, 370 miles of fencing and other measures designed to keep illegal immigrants from entering the country. But the Minutemen are worried about provisions that would eventually grant citizenship to millions of illegal workers. "It is repulsive and insulting that our government would promote any form of amnesty for overtly illegal conduct," said the group's executive director, Al Garza.

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