NEW YORK - As two Democratic senators introduced yet another version of immigration reform legislation - and two Republican senators immediately condemned it - more than 500 not-for-profit organisations called on President Barack Obama to end what they called "the merger of immigration enforcement with criminal justice."
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and committee member Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey last week filed the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2010. Republican Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and Jon Kyl of Arizona blasted the legislation as a "cynical ploy for votes" and called the push for immigration reform "for effect rather than reality."
At the same time, 578 groups from across the country delivered a letter to President Obama expressing concerns that the Obama administration's increased reliance on local law enforcement to arrest, detain, and deport immigrants has exacerbated existing problems in the criminal justice system. The letter demanded that the government "end the merger of immigration enforcement with criminal justice." It cited systemic problems within both the immigration and criminal justice systems.
The groups represent a wide range of fields, including religion, law, labour, immigration, civil and human rights, education and law enforcement.
Their letter declares, "The merger of immigration enforcement and local criminal justice agencies is not only bad public policy, it also sabotages local law enforcement agencies' core mission of protecting public safety by undermining the trust of the communities they serve. It discourages people from turning to the police when they need to, even to report crimes. It undermines public safety by diverting scarce resources away from local policing and focuses them on false threats from people who look or sound foreign."
Secure Communities, 287(g), and the Criminal Alien Program - the Obama administration's signature immigration enforcement programmes - all rely on heavy involvement from and cooperation with local law enforcement to siphon immigrants into the immigration enforcement and detention system and, ultimately, through deportation proceedings.
The 287(g) programme authorises the Federal Government to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies, permitting designated officers to perform immigration law enforcement functions.
The Criminal Alien Program (CAP) is responsible for identifying, processing and removing criminal aliens incarcerated in federal, state and local prisons and jails throughout the United States and preventing their release into the general public.
Secure Communities is a newer and rapidly expanding programme that also relies heavily on the cooperation of local law enforcement. It is currently active in more than 650 jurisdictions in 32 states and is expected to be active in every state by 2011 and in all 3,100 state and local jails by 2013.
All three programmes are implemented by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) service, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
"The Obama administration's over-reliance on local law enforcement agencies to arrest, detain and deport immigrants legitimises the racial discrimination that persists in the criminal justice system," said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.
"For all our communities, this marriage of convenience between the immigration system and the criminal justice system will only serve to further deter immigrants from cooperating with the police, and sever the already tenuous ties between law enforcement and vulnerable community members," she said.
The letter to Obama maintains that abuses within the criminal justice system have been well documented, and that racial profiling continues to plague cities across the country.
The Menendez-Leahy immigration bill establishes a path to legalisation, but also outlines a set of border enforcement "triggers" that must be met before any unauthorised immigrants can apply for permanent residency. Once those benchmarks are reached, undocumented immigrants will have the opportunity to register with the government, undergo a background check, learn English, and pay fines and taxes on their way to becoming American citizens.
The legislation also includes two existing pieces of proposed legislation that have been blocked from Senate passage by the minority - the DREAM Act which would allow undocumented youth to regularise their status by going to college or serving in the military; and AgJOBS, which would establish an earned legalisation programme for undocumented farm workers and revise the existing H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program to provide farmers with a steady flow of labour.
Menendez acknowledges that the upcoming congressional election will make it difficult to get any significant amount of floor time for an immigration debate this fall. However, his supporters say his bill "shows Latino voters what has been the reality all year long: Democrats have been more than ready to introduce and vote 'yes' on immigration reform while Republicans have stalled and obstructed the issue."
This remarkably candid admission raises questions about whether the introduction of the Menendez legislation was selected primarily to please an important part of the Democrats' political constituency.
Hatch responded by introducing an immigration bill of his own. According to the Deseret News, Hatch's bill, "Strengthening Our Commitment to Legal Immigration and America's Security Act," would "require participation in key law enforcement programs, clamp down on identify theft, streamline the visa system, track the amount of welfare benefits being diverted to illegal immigrant households, curb serious abuses of immigration laws and help prevent Mexican cartels from using national parks and federal lands to grow marijuana."
However, the newspaper reports that the Hatch bill does not address the status of the 11-12 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. and the lack of visas available to migrants who want to work in the U.S.
The Menendez-Leahy legislation contains a provision not seen in several other immigration reform bills. It would create a new independent federal agency: the Standing Commission on Immigration, Labor Markets, and the National Interest. The agency's task would be to evaluate the U.S. labour market and economic conditions, and annually recommend to Congress the levels of permanent and temporary immigrant labour that would allow the U.S. economy to continue expanding while avoiding an oversupply of labour and the downward pressure on wages that could result.
Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute told IPS that the White House has not reacted as yet to the Commission proposal. But, he added, "I have no doubt that if the Commission is in a bill that makes it through Congress, the administration will be enthusiastic.