Bill on Illegal-Immigrant Aid Draws Fire

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Bill on Illegal-Immigrant Aid Draws Fire

Newspaper article

By: Rachel B. Swarns

Date: December 30, 2005

Source: Swarns, Rachel B. "Bill on Illegal-Immigrant Aid Draws Fire." New York Times (December 30, 2005).

About the Author: Rachel B. Swarns is a reporter for the New York Times, a quality daily U.S. newspaper that was founded in 1851. The New York Times is published in New York City and is distributed to many other countries.


In December 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a border security bill aimed at strengthening enforcement of immigration control and reducing undocumented migration to the United States. Mass rallies were held nationwide to protest against the bill, particularly the provision that made it a felony for anyone to assist an undocumented immigrant to enter the United States or to remain in the United States illegally. This provision of the bill was primarily intended to punish smugglers who assist undocumented migrants to enter the United States and employers who deliberately hire people known to be illegal residents or those without proper documentation.

It has been estimated that up to forty percent of undocumented migrants, particularly those from Mexico, use the services of agents, or people smugglers, to arrange their entry to the United States. The use of smugglers is believed to have increased since policies aimed at strengthening the border control have made land crossings into the United States increasingly difficult. As a result, large criminal groups specializing in people smuggling have developed in Mexico, with many smaller agents also involved. Research has found that the typical fees paid to a smuggler by a Mexican migrant increased more than threefold since the launch of "Operation Gatekeeper" in 1994, and by 2004 were often in excess of $2,000. The border security bill aims to deter such activity by imposing hefty penalties and jail sentences on those found guilty of this crime.

Employers of undocumented migrants are also targeted by the bill. Although many employers may unknowingly employ illegal migrants, particularly if they hold faked documents, the proposed legislation is aimed at those with a deliberate strategy of hiring undocumented migrants, perhaps in order to reduce wage costs. Under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), employers found to have knowingly employed undocumented migrants are liable to fines. However, this legislation has been ineffective in reducing levels of employment of undocumented migrants, in part due to a loophole in the law that does not require employers to verify the documents presented by potential employees. More significant, however, has been the lack of funding for enforcement of those provisions of the legislation dealing with employers, and a focus on strengthening border controls as the primary measure in combating illegal immigration. As a result, the number of workplace inspections conducted between 1992 and 2002 fell by more than seventy percent and, in 2003, only four employers were prosecuted for employing undocumented migrants.

The intention of the December 2005 bill was to make federal crimes of activities such as people smuggling and the employment of unauthorized migrants. However, a wide range of religious institutions, advocacy organizations, and immigrant support organizations also come into contact with undocumented migrants and may actively seek to provide them with various forms of humanitarian and welfare support and other assistance. These groups were concerned that they also would be liable to prosecution if the bill were to become law. They embarked on a campaign of opposition to the proposed legislation, spearheaded by the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church in the United States has traditionally supported immigrant groups in both a political and practical sense. Church officials at the highest levels have openly criticized immigration policies that are felt to be harmful to the interests of immigrants, such as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. In 2000, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called publicly for the respect of immigrants' rights. The Catholic Church, along with other religious organizations, also provides many practical services to assist immigrants in submitting applications for immigration or political asylum. A wide range of other immigrant support groups, some organized along ethnic or religious lines, provide similar assistance to immigrants, and some go even further in helping them to learn English and find jobs in the United States. For ethical reasons, these organizations often do not discriminate on the basis of immigration status when providing services.


WASHINGTON, Dec. 29— Churches, social service agencies and immigration groups across the country are rallying against a provision in the recently passed House border-security bill that would make it a federal crime to offer services or assistance to illegal immigrants.

The measure would broaden the nation's immigrant-smuggling law so that people who assist or shield illegal immigrants would be subject to prosecution. Offenders, who might include priests, nurses or social workers, could face up to five years in prison. The proposal would also allow the authorities to seize some assets of those convicted of such a crime.

Proponents of the legislation have argued that such provisions would make it harder for illegal immigrants to thrive in the United States by discouraging people from helping them. The legislation, which cleared the House this month, could also subject the spouses and colleagues of illegal workers to prosecution.

Several Republicans and Democrats in Congress say the measure appears unlikely to become law. But the legislation has touched off an outcry among groups that teach English and offer job training, medical assistance and other services to immigrants.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has written to members of Congress and called on President Bush to oppose the measure publicly. In Manhattan, scores of immigrants demonstrated against the bill last week. Here in the Washington area, a coalition of immigrant-services groups is planning rallies, visits to members of Congress and a letter-writing campaign to try to prevent the immigration bill from becoming law.

"We are going to fight this legislation," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa of Maryland, one of the advocacy groups rallying against the measure. "The immigrant community is very upset about this."

Mr. Torres's group offers job placement services and English classes to thousands of immigrants each year. On Wednesday, as he greeted day laborers looking for work at his center in Silver Spring, Md., Mr. Torres said he could not imagine being forced to turn away the needy because they lacked legal papers.

"We never ask for documentation," he said. "Our mission is to help anyone in need of service, regardless of their immigration status. We are proud of that." Speaking for the Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Gerald R. Barnes of San Bernardino, Calif., said the measure threatened church workers and doctors as well as ordinary citizens who provided urgent or life-saving assistance to illegal immigrants.

"Current legislation does not require humanitarian groups to ascertain the legal status of an individual prior to providing assistance," Bishop Barnes wrote this month in a letter to Congress. "The legislation would place parish, diocesan and social service program staff at risk of criminal prosecution simply for performing their jobs."

Supporters of the border-security bill say they are trying to crack down on a culture of indifference to the nation's immigration laws that has allowed 11 million illegal immigrants to live in this country.

The legislation would make it a federal crime to live in the United States illegally, which would turn millions of illegal immigrants into felons, ineligible to win any legal status. It would also stiffen the penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants.

"This legislation aims to prevent illegal immigration and re-establish respect for our immigration laws," said Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin, who introduced the legislation in the House.

"Those breaking the law will be held accountable," Mr. Sensenbrenner said, "whether they are smugglers cruelly trafficking in human beings, employers hiring illegal workers or alien gang members terrorizing communities."

President Bush has also praised the legislation.

"America is a nation built on the rule of law, and this bill will help us protect our borders and crack down on illegal entry into the United States," Mr. Bush said after the House passed the measure. "Securing our borders is essential to securing the homeland."

In his statement, Mr. Bush did not comment on the provision that is causing such a furor among churches and nonprofit groups. A White House spokesman referred questions about Mr. Bush's position on the matter to the Justice Department.

John Nowacki, a spokesman for the department, declined to answer questions about whether the Bush administration supported the provision.

White House officials have emphasized in recent weeks, however, that Mr. Bush still believes that any immigration legislation should include a guest worker program that would grant millions of undocumented workers the right to work temporarily in this country.

The House bill does not include a guest worker program, but the Senate is expected to consider such a plan early next year. A guest worker plan would give legal status to millions of illegal immigrants. If that were to happen, the measure outlawing assistance to illegal immigrants might be removed or end up having little effect.

But advocates for immigration said they were still deeply disheartened that Mr. Bush and members of Congress had not spoken out against the House measure.

"It's mind-boggling," said Julie Dinnerstein, deputy director for immigration policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, which sponsored last week's rally in New York.

"I think our courts should be focused on people who are doing terrible things," Ms. Dinnerstein said. "Do we need to send a bunch of priests or ministers or nurses to jail?"


Major public demonstrations against the border security bill were held across the country during early 2006. In May 2006, the Senate passed an alternative bill that did not propose any change to the law on assisting undocumented migrants, although it did support further strengthening of immigration enforcement. The Senate bill addressed the interests of undocumented migrants already in the United States and the needs of U.S. employers by proposing a guest worker program. Under this program, undocumented immigrants already residing in the United States would be eligible to apply for guest worker status.

Both houses of Congress must agree on an immigration bill before it can become law. As of mid-2006, it was unclear whether such an agreement would be reached on the proposal to make providing assistance to undocumented migrants a federal crime. The outcry from the church and immigrant support organizations has highlighted the complexity of defining such a crime, given the wide range of organizations and service providers that undocumented migrants may contact and the ethical issues often involved in these interactions.



DeLaet, Debra L. U.S. Immigration Policy in an Age of Rights. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000.


Cornelius, Wayne A. "Controlling 'Unwanted' Immigration: Lessons from the United States, 1993–2004." Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (July 2005).

Menjivar, Cecilia. "Religion and Immigration in Comparative Perspective: Catholic and Evangelical Salvadorans in San Francisco." Sociology of Religion (Spring 2003).

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Bill on Illegal-Immigrant Aid Draws Fire

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