Activists Seek Halt to Worker Deportation

As Congress prepares to again debate an immigration overhaul, a coalition of advocates have called on the administration to ease a crackdown that has seen a rise in the number of illegal immigrants arrested, detained and deported.

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Congress is once again preparing to debate an immigration overhaul, and a coalition of advocates have called on the administration to ease its crackdown. Since the Department Of Homeland Security was created four years ago. Since then, there's been a steady rise in the number of illegal immigrants arrested, detained and deported. Officials say they are just trying to enforce the law. Immigrant activists say the up-tick is tearing apart families. Yesterday, they staged some 30 news conferences across the country to press their point.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: At the Washington press conference, Fernando Chavez looked uncomfortable, shifting in jeans as he stood amid a lineup of well-dressed advocates and a priest. He said a month ago his wife went to a meeting at the immigration office near their home in Culpeper, Virginia. She thought she was finally going to receive her green card, as he already has. Instead, she was arrested because of an old deportation order, the one he says she never received.

Mr. FERNANDO CHAVEZ: (Through Translator) My wife, they have sent her faraway. She is in a prison, in jail, and her lawyer and her family don't have access to her.

LUDDEN: Chavez's wife is in a new compound of tents in Texas set up as the immigration agency has rushed to increase its detention capacity. Now he's struggling to care for their two young girls, one of whom has health problems. Brent Wilkes heads the League of United Latin American Citizens. And as he sees it, the immigration crackdown is driven by politics. President Bush, he says, is courting the opposition to curry support for his proposed plan to legalize immigrants and create a guest-worker program.

Mr. BRENT WILKES (League of United Latin American Citizens): Certain Republican members of Congress have said we don't believe you can enforce immigration law and the president's responded by saying, oh yes I can. And now he's putting the pressure on our families all across the country, and he's arresting them and it's having a real impact. And I think that's the part that's lost in this.

LUDDEN: Wilkes says it makes no sense today to arrest the very people Congress may soon decide can become legal. He and other activists want a temporary moratorium on arrest and deportations until Congress decides on an overhaul of the system.

Mr. STEVEN CAMAROTA (Director of Research, Center for Immigration Studies): There's a certain perverse logic to it.

LUDDEN: Steve Camarota is with the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants less immigration. He says, of course, if there's a national debate about granting what Camarota considers sheer amnesty, some will say why don't we just do it now? But Camarota says that would be wrongheaded.

Mr. CAMAROTA: It mocks the law-abiding. It makes everyone thinking about coming illegally that much more likely to come. And it makes everyone involved in enforcement right now realize that their job is meaningless.

LUDDEN: Immigrant activist say business and success of governments have all been complicit in creating the current broken system. It's just not fair, they say, that hard-working immigrants seem to be the only ones paying the price. But Marc Raimondi with Immigration and Customs Enforcement says no one who enters the country illegally should expect impunity.

Mr. MARC RAIMONDI (Spokesman, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement): Our job is to enforce the nation's laws. People who are here illegally know that they run the risk of being detained and placed in removal proceedings. That's a very well known fact, and I think that people that subject their family to that do so knowingly.

LUDDEN: Analyst Camarota says there's another point. While activists may hope some type of legalization is around the corner, no one knows what, if anything, Congress will do this year on immigration.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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