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Senate Weighs Overhaul of Immigration Law

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Senate Weighs Overhaul of Immigration Law

Politics

Senate Weighs Overhaul of Immigration Law

Senate Weighs Overhaul of Immigration Law

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The U.S. House has passed an immigration bill that would punish religious organizations and other groups that harbor illegal immigrants or assist in their entrance into the country. The bill is now in the Senate. Liane Hansen discusses the bill with Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

LIANE HANSEN, Host:

Last week, on our program, we invited Kevin Appleby, director of the Office of Migration and Refugee Policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to discuss the immigration bill passed by the House and the bill currently under consideration in the Senate.

The invitation was prompted by the Ash Wednesday address given by Cardinal Roger Mahoney, who strongly opposes the legislation. Mr. Appleby elaborated on the Catholic church's concern that the bill would restrict the pastoral work done in parishes and possibly subject those who help illegal immigrants to criminal prosecution.

This week, we've invited Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, to address some of the issues raised by Mr. Appleby. Mr. Mehlman is in the studio of NPR West. Thanks for joining us.

IRA MEHLMAN: Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: First, in your opinion, what effect would the bill have on clergy who administer communion or actually provide food to those who are in the country illegally?

MEHLMAN: Really, none at all. I think Cardinal Mahoney is creating a bit of hysteria himself here. This is not intended to affect normal church activities, such as administering communion. What it is intended to address is religious institutions that have become involved in harboring and even, on occasion, smuggling illegal aliens into the United States. They should not be above the law. They ought to be subject to penalties when they engage in illegal activities.

HANSEN: But what about the word, assist? Could that not be interpreted by a prosecutor to mean that they're doing something that's illegal?

MEHLMAN: You know, I can't get into the minds of a prosecutor. The intent of the bill is clear: it is to go after those church institutions that have been using religion as a cover for actively engaging in violating American immigration law and assisting people in violating the law.

HANSEN: You had written an editorial and you do suggest that when religious workers, and I'm going to quote you, cross the line and actively assist people in violating the law, they will be held accountable. What's the line?

MEHLMAN: The line is actively engaging, harboring and smuggling illegal immigrants. In the next few weeks, there are going to be some church workers in Arizona who are going to be going on trial for smuggling illegal aliens. You had church institutions that have engaged in harboring, providing shelter and hiding people from immigration authorities. That crosses the line.

HANSEN: You suggest that what Cardinal Mahoney and others are promoting is not charity. Can you explain what you mean?

MEHLMAN: Every ethical and moral system includes some provision for charity. We all have an obligation to be charitable. But we are only allowed to be charitable with our own resources. And what Cardinal Mahoney is essentially advocating is being charitable with other people's resources, being charitable with other people's jobs, other people's children's educational opportunities.

What he is saying to workers in places like Los Angeles is, we're sorry, but we believe that there are people on the other side of the border who have a more compelling story than you do and you're going to have to sacrifice your job or part of your paycheck because we believe that they have a greater interest in crossing the border than the country has in protecting your job and your children's education.

HANSEN: Obviously, this is a very controversial issue. Do you see a middle ground here?

MEHLMAN: I'm not sure if it's as polarizing as people make it out to be. If you look at all the polls that have done, the vast majority of the American public believes that our immigration laws need to be enforced, that people who violate the law shouldn't be rewarded. What we need to do is institute policies that make it very clear to people that if you violate our immigration laws, you're not going to benefit. And you do that by going after the employers, drying up the supply of jobs, not giving people access to unlimited benefits and services, limit it to emergency benefits and services only.

And over time, you can convince people that there is no benefit to violating our immigration law. And that's going to be the most effective way we can deal with the problem and the most humane way to deal with it.

HANSEN: Are you optimistic the bill will be passed into law?

MEHLMAN: Right now, we're going through a debate in the Senate, where the Senate is pushing the administration's plan of amnesty and a massive guest worker program that would undermine the middle class. I think if you look at the reaction, particularly of the Republicans on the Dubai Ports deal, many people in the President's own party are not prepared to march off the cliff with him.

This is going to be an election issue. Most Americans will see a massive guest worker and amnesty program as the death warrant for the middle class. And they are going to punish people in Congress who vote along those lines. So I think there is a good chance that what will come out is a bill that is enforcement only, one that honors the commitments that Congress and administration have made to the American public for decades now and haven't kept, that first we need to enforce our immigration laws, get the border under control, then we can consider all the other options. But first we have an obligation to control the border.

HANSEN: Ira Mehlman is a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform and he joined us from the studios of NPR West in Culver City. Thanks so much for your time.

MEHLMAN: Thank you.

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