Democrats on Tuesday begin their new push for an immigration bill, hamstrung by the image of legalizing millions of illegal immigrant workers at a time when the unemployment rate stands at 10 percent -- more than twice what it was the last time Congress tried to act.
"It certainly will confuse the debate a lot more, but at the end of the day what we have to understand is fixing this system will be good for American workers," said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, which is one of the major advocates for legalizing illegal immigrant workers.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, the Illinois Democrat who has taken over leadership on the issue after the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, plans to introduce an immigration legalization bill Tuesday, and backers are planning a strategy to avoid repeats of the failed attempts of 2006 and 2007.
In a letter to members of Congress last week seeking support for the bill, Mr. Gutierrez and Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez, New York Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said their legislation will end the off-the-books economy of illegal immigrant workers and protect American workers by raising labor standards.
"In these difficult economic times, we must ensure that everyone contributes toward the recovery and prosperity of our nation," they wrote. "To this end, it is imperative that all individuals and employers pay their fair share in taxes."
A draft overview of the bill, circulated with the letter, ends some enforcement tools such as the 287(g) local police cooperation program, calls for an electronic verification system to replace the voluntary E-verify program, argues that there's no need for more U.S. Border Patrol agents or fencing, and establishes a long-term path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
That path would require illegal immigrants to pay a $500 fine, pass a background check and learn English and civics to gain legal status. After six years, they could apply for legal permanent residence, or a green card, which is the interim step to citizenship. There is no "touchback" provision requiring them to return to their home countries at some point in the process.
Republicans are sharpening their attacks and going straight for the jobs argument.
"With 15 million Americans out of work, it's hard to believe that anyone would give amnesty to 12 million illegal immigrants," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. "Even the open-borders crowd agrees that illegal immigrants take jobs from American workers, particularly poor and disadvantaged citizens and legal immigrants. This is exactly why we need to oppose amnesty."
His office has calculated that there are 19 states where the number of illegal immigrants in the work force is at least 50 percent of the number of unemployed workers.
Arizona tops the list, with unemployment at 293,000 as of October and with 300,000 illegal immigrants either working or seeking work as of 2008, according to a 2009 Pew Hispanic Center report. New Jersey, Nevada, Maryland and Texas round out the top five states.
The Immigration Policy Center says employment is "not a zero-sum game" and that a legalization program would increase tax revenues and consumer spending.
Supporters of legalization acknowledge the tough sell on jobs but say the math is more complex than stacking unemployment and immigration numbers against each other.
"Of course it complicates it. Of course the public's first reaction is understandable, it's why do we need more workers when upwards of 15 million Americans are out of work," said Tamar Jacoby, president and chief executive officer of ImmigrationWorks USA, a coalition of businesses pushing for immigration reform.
But she said history has shown that there are some jobs that American workers won't take and immigrant workers will.
She pointed to resort communities in Michigan that struggled to find workers this summer even though they were just a couple of counties away from Detroit, which has been devastated by layoffs.
"Laid-off autoworkers in Detroit don't want to travel across the state, let alone across the country, to pick pears, pick apples," she said.
"In 1986, the last time we tried immigration reform, Congress told itself that American employers could be weaned from their need for workers. That was just unrealistic because Americans do not want to work in meat-processing plants, they do not want to clean rooms in hotels, they do not want to work as dishwashers."
The 1986 amnesty legalized millions of illegal immigrants but did not stop more from coming.
In 2006, at President Bush's urging, the Senate passed a bill to legalize most illegal immigrants and to boost security. That bill stalled when the House insisted on an enforcement-only approach.
In 2007, with Democrats in control of Congress, the Senate tried again -- but the bill failed after a public outcry shut down the Senate phone system and a bipartisan majority of senators joined a filibuster. Lawmakers said voters didn't think the government would follow through on enforcement.
The unemployment rate averaged 4.6 percent in 2006 and 2007, or less than half of the current 10 percent rate.
President Obama has said he wants Congress to act next year on immigration, and has tapped Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to begin organizing the administration's effort.
Ms. Napolitano, in a speech last month, said enough progress has been made on border security, and that she's trying to refocus interior enforcement on dangerous illegal immigrants and unscrupulous employers rather than workers. Part of that refocused effort involves audits of I-9 forms, the work authorization documents all workers must file when they take a job.
But Ms. Napolitano has taken fire from both sides. Those who want a crackdown say she's letting illegal immigrant workers off the hook by not deporting them when they're caught, while immigrant-rights advocates say the I-9 audit focuses on the wrong employers.
Mr. Medina, in a call with reporters Monday, said employers who fill out I-9 forms are at least employing workers on the books and paying taxes on their income. He said Ms. Napolitano instead should go after businesses that ignore the I-9 requirements and hire workers off the books, which he said makes those workers more open to exploitation.
"They are trying to look tough in enforcing the law. But this is not about looking tough; this is about solving problems," he said.
Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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