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In late June, House leaders rejected negotiations with the Senate on a bipartisan immigration bill that combines militarization of the border with a corporate-friendly guest worker program. That’s bad news for President Bush, who endorsed the “compromise” legislation, SB2611. House Republicans instead said they will hold public hearings around the country on immigration, ensuring the issue will stay in the national spotlight for the next few months.

The Senate bill was created as a response to the vicious, anti-immigrant HR4437, which passed the House last winter and which called for criminalizing undocumented immigrants and anyone who helps them, building a giant wall along the border, and adding thousands of armed border patrol agents to a zone where hundreds of immigrants die each year trying to cross.

After the House bill caused an unprecedented backlash of protest in the immigrant community, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate rushed to come up with an alternative. SB2611 is aimed at giving Corporate America the exploitable workforce they demand, while appearing to appease the demands of Latino voters.

The bill’s guest worker program would allow a limited number of immigrants to work in the U.S. on a temporary basis for up to six years. It also divides the immigrant community between new arrivals and longer-term residents.

Undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for more than five years could apply for citizenship after waiting many years, paying thousands in fines and fees, and learning English. Those who have been here less than five years and more than two would have to leave the country and apply to reenter as guest workers. The millions who have immigrated in the last two years would be immediately deported.

Some unions and immigrant organizations have wrongly hailed the Senate bill as a “step in the right direction.” Instead of granting immigrant workers the full rights they deserve, the guest worker program would institutionalize their second-class status, creating what Mexican American Political Association President Nativo Lopez called a “bantu apartheid system.” Unlike citizens, guest workers could only stay in the country as long as they kept their job, giving employers a weapon to terrorize workers who complain about pay or conditions. Workers could slave in the program for years with no guarantee of citizenship or even a green card.

Immigrants applying for legalization would have to report their undocumented status, setting them up for deportation if their application isn’t approved. The Senate bill retains most of the draconian enforcement measures of the House bill, plus some new ones. It still calls for building a wall at the border — just a shorter one — and for sending the National Guard to patrol it. And it would build new detention centers where immigrants could be held indefinitely without charges.

That’s why most progressive immigrant rights groups and the AFL-CIO union federation oppose SB2611.

The Republican Party is divided between big business and the politicians that support them who want to maintain a reliable supply of cheap labor, and right-wingers who want to win support among white, native-born constituents by blaming immigrants for the problems facing the country: from low wages to crime and lack of social services.

Meanwhile, the Democrats, instead of using the momentum created by massive immigrant-rights protests to take a firm stand against repression, are supporting the Senate bill in an effort to pacify immigrants while still “looking tough.”

Congress may have reached a stalemate on immigration legislation, but this is only the first round in a series of major battles around the issue. We can expect the House Republicans to use their upcoming public hearings to foment more anti-immigrant hysteria in advance of the November congressional elections. The immigrant rights movement should point out that if Congress wants to reduce immigration, they should reverse U.S. policies, like NAFTA, that create devastating poverty in Mexico and the underdeveloped world.

The immigrant rights movement must seize the moment to fight for measures that can really improve the lives of immigrants and unite all working people against their common enemy: big business. Working together with the labor movement and other allies, we should demand an unconditional legalization for all undocumented workers currently in the country, along with a living minimum wage for all workers of $12.50 per hour, union rights, and a free universal healthcare system.

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