A week ago Sunday, while the health care debate and its related public displays of anger and hatred were creating more heat than light, several blocks away an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 immigrant rights supporters from the entire country congregated on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to demand immigration reform this year.

With some dressed in white and carrying American flags, marchers spanned from the Washington Monument to the steps of Congress. Much of the media failed to report on President Obama’s recorded message broadcast to a cheering audience via giant TV screens on the Mall’s perimeter.

In part, Obama said: “You know as well as I do that this (immigration reform) won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight, but if we work together across ethnic, state and party lines, we can build a future worthy of our history as a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws.”

Since our nation’s founding, immigration has been vital to U.S. growth and also a great thorn in our collective sides. In this century, we have seen the largest wave of immigration since the 1920s. In 2008, about 11.9 million undocumented immigrants were living in America, thereby fueling one of our most contentious political battles.

The complex background of U.S. immigration reform seems to make it even more difficult to move forward.

In 2004, President George W. Bush called for an overhaul of immigration laws that would have given de facto amnesty to more than 3 million undocumented immigrants. His plan included a guest worker program that would match willing foreign workers with willing U.S. employers, when no American workers could be found to fill the jobs.

Illegal immigrants could also register as temporary workers, with the possibility of acquiring citizen status.

In 2005, frustration growing over illegal immigration, particularly in states such as Arizona and Georgia, spurred bills that focused on law enforcement and border security, making it a federal felony to live illegally in the United States and mandating hundreds of miles of fence along the Mexican border.

In the absence of federal reform legislation, state legislatures have since adopted more than 200 laws. Most of the laws were designed to curb immigration, by restricting access by illegal immigrants to driver’s licenses and public benefits, and by cracking down on human smuggling.

Also, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of Homeland Security, stepped up raids at factories and targeted communities, deporting nearly 350,000 immigrants in 2008.

Most recently, Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have proposed a bill that addresses the concerns of undocumented immigrants already living here.

Basically, they would pay a fine and back-taxes, admit that they broke the law, do community service and pass a background check. A similar bill is being sponsored in the House by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.

An enormous coalition of religious organizations, businesses and human rights groups, including the NAACP and the National Urban League, are behind immigration reform.

The United Farm Workers and Service Employees International Union, considered the fastest-growing union in America, are also on board.

Workers Independent News reported that the AFL-CIO, a union federation representing 12 million workers, is supporting reform so long as it “enforces workers’ rights.”

AFL-CIO President Rick Trumka supports legislation that “would give undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors and who graduate from U.S. high schools a chance to earn conditional permanent residency.”

Perhaps the biggest problem in the country’s broken immigration system is how it hurts families and workers.

The Texas Observer refers to a booming immigration detention industry. “As the number of immigrant detainees continues to grow, the atmosphere in (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention facilities has grown predictably volatile.”

Inter Press Service reported about an Arizona bill that could impose fines and criminal charges against family members and employers who harbor or transport undocumented workers.

The use of the phrase “illegal immigrant” is too often another divide-and-conquer tactic. Historically, we have heard it in this country about Jews, Chinese, Irish, Japanese, Italians, French-Canadians and many other ethnic and religious groups. In reality, current immigrants, legal or illegal, are not for the most part taking jobs away from Americans.

They are working in sweat shops, food service, unskilled construction and factories and as gardeners, farm labor and au pairs, largely menial jobs paying far below a living wage most American citizens expect.

Many corporations continue to hire immigrants who cross our borders illegally because they are willing to work in dangerous situations without complaint or legal recourse, and at low pay with little or no benefits.

Yes, there are countless American citizens out of work and suffering because of economic downturns. But, for the immigrants who live here now, most of whom are working jobs the average American-born citizen could not survive on, there has to be comprehensive reform that considers both the practical and the humane.

 

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer whose book, “The Written Song: The Antebellum African-American Press in the Northeast,” is due for publication this year. He can be contacted at:

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