Union Tribune

October 11, 2002


Democrats call for immigrant 'legalization'
Bill seeks to clarify status, provide path to citizenship


WASHINGTON A group of House Democrats introduced legislation yesterday that they say would pull millions of illegal immigrants out of society's shadows by giving them legal status.

A leading Republican immediately charged that the measure was "shamelessly" timed for political advantage just weeks before the November elections and that it can't possibly be passed this year.

The partisan exchange illustrated the volatility of immigration politics while both parties are increasingly concerned about the growing Latino vote. Democrats are seeking to exploit divisions within Republican ranks over how to deal with the presence of an estimated 8 million undocumented immigrants, most of them Latino.

Democratic leader Richard Gephardt unveiled the Earned Legalization and Family Unification Act of 2002 at a news conference in the Capitol.

The bill would provide legal status, including a path to citizenship, to illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States at least five years and have held a job for at least two years. Applicants would be required to pass a background check.

The bill proposes the most sweeping changes in immigration policy since a 1986 law that promised a "one time only" amnesty for illegal immigrants. That legislation, known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act, represented a hard-fought compromise that placated amnesty critics by setting penalties for employers who hired illegal workers.

The penalties were supposed to "de-magnetize" the job market that pulls immigrants across the border. But that part of the law has rarely been enforced because of pressure from the many sectors of the U.S. economy that depend on the labor of illegal immigrants.

The Democrats' bill is supported by a coalition of business leaders, labor, churches and Latino rights groups.

In a statement distributed to reporters at the news conference, the Republican chairman of the House committee responsible for immigration legislation criticized Gephardt for "reckless" political opportunism.

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, labeled the proposal another "amnesty," a term Democrats have avoided because it indicates forgiveness for an offense and because advocates of the 1986 amnesty vowed it would not be repeated.

Democrats now present "legalization" as a reward for work that has contributed to the economy.

"Within a few weeks before the elections, Rep. Gephardt today shamelessly introduced immigration amnesty legislation, knowing it stands no chance of passage with only a few days remaining in this Congress," Sensenbrenner said.

Sensenbrenner said the bill would "needlessly raise the hopes of many by proposing legislation that in reality would only result in stuffing millions of amnesty petitions on the bottom of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's 5 million-case backlog pile."

The Democrats' proposal seeks to streamline the reunification of naturalized citizens with their relatives. Currently, families sometimes remain separated for 10 years or more as they wait for the INS to process their papers and fit them in under numerical caps for immigrant visas.

The bill would remove spouses, parents and unmarried minor children from the caps. A Democratic aide said this provision is a concession to those who complained that the legalization proposal would penalize families who have waited in the immigration line while illegal immigrants reunited their families by ignoring the law.

Another sponsor of the bill, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, challenged President Bush, who has wrestled with his party's divisions about immigration policy, to back legalization.

"We feel that it's important and that it's imperative that the president step forward," said Reyes, a former top official of the Border Patrol and now chairman of the Hispanic caucus in the House.

Advocates of legalization contrast the Democrats' initiative with what they call President Bush's glitzy but empty gestures, such as Wednesday's ceremonies at the White House to mark Hispanic Heritage Month.

"We want opportunities for legalization, not photo ops," said union leader Eliseo Medina, whose father was a Mexican farm worker who immigrated illegally in the 1950s.

Terry McAuliffe, national chairman of the Democratic Party, issued a statement mocking Bush's "mariachi politics" at the White House.

"The Hispanic community deserves more than a nice pat on the back and a few scattered words in broken Spanish from President Bush," he said.