|Immigrant advocates blast tough rules||Monday, March 27, 2006|
|Liz Mineo 508-626-3825||Metrowest Daily News|
As the U.S. Senate braces to start a heated debate on immigration reform today,
local immigrant advocates are closing ranks to prevent a tough immigration
enforcement bill passed by the House from surviving in the Senate.
One of the provisions included in the bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., could make it a federal crime to assist illegal immigrants and could turn priests, baby sitters, school teachers and health care providers into felons. That measure has triggered an outcry among immigrant advocates across MetroWest and the Milford area.
"We're trying to help people in need, and we're going to be called felons?" said Estela Aviles, president of a Waltham organization that offers English classes for immigrants and helps them become U.S. citizens.
Aviles, who also works at a community health center in Waltham, said she worries about the repercussions of the Sensenbrenner bill, which will also make it a crime to be an illegal immigrant. Unlawful presence in the United States is a misdemeanor, a violation of civil law.
"Are they saying that a woman who is trying to feed her child is a criminal?" said Aviles. "And someone at a health center that gives medicine to an ailing illegal immigrant will also be considered a felon? That goes against the essence of being a good human being."
Though it's unlikely that provision will be included in the legislation that will overhaul the nation's immigration system, immigrant supporters across the nation are riled.
Catholic church officials have criticized the measure and have said they'll send lobbyists to Congress this week to push for legislation that offers a path to legalization rather than massive deportations and punitive measures.
In Marlborough, the Rev. Ignacio Berrio of the Immaculate Conception Church said he opposes any legislation that would prevent him from helping illegal immigrants.
"We have to help whomever is in need, no matter if they're legal or illegal," said Berrio, who offers a Mass in Spanish to nearly 400 parishioners every Sunday morning. "When it comes to helping people, there shouldn't be any barriers."
About two weeks ago, more than 100,000 people protested the House bill in Chicago. In Boston, immigrant advocates plan to march down Tremont Street today to join the immigrant campaign for a comprehensive immigration reform.
Of the 31 million immigrants living here, nearly 11 million are estimated to be here illegally, according to a recent report by the Pew Hispanic Center. About 87,000 illegal immigrants call Massachusetts home, but many believe there could be between 100,000 and 200,000.
Conservative forces favor strict immigration measures as the only way to stem the flow of illegal immigration, which, they said, is draining federal and state resources, taking jobs from U.S.-born workers and putting U.S. homeland security at risk.
In Framingham, Jim Rizoli, a member of Concerned Citizens and Friends of Illegal Immigration Law Enforcement, an anti-illegal immigrant group, said while the measure that penalizes those who help illegal immigrants is a little extreme, it sends a message to stop aiding and abetting illegal immigrants.
"But to tell you the truth, I don't think it's going to help," he said. "We have laws that say you're not supposed to hire illegal aliens and people do it. Big deal. Priests and social workers aren't going to go along with it."
Immigrant supporters don't ask immigrants about their legal status, and wouldn't feel comfortable doing it. Laura Medrano of the MetroWest Latin American Center in Framingham said her organization cannot check who, of all the people who come asking for help, is here illegally.
In Milford, Anne Berard, who is the English as a Second Language coordinator at the Milford Public Library, said she feels the same way.
"We don't ask people about their immigration status," said Berard. "We think it's not pertinent to what we're trying to do. We're trying to help them, and they're here trying to have a better life."
Malu Lopez, who deals with immigrants as a social worker for Advocates, Inc. and SMOC in Framingham, said she finds the measure "horrifying.'
"With proposals like that, they're telling us they want to abolish immigration," she said. "In a country that prides itself in being a country of immigrants, it's just outrageous."
Of the several immigration proposals that are in the Senate, most immigrant advocates favor the bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. and John McCain, R-Ariz., which offers a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants. A proposal by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., calls for deporting millions of illegal immigrants in order for them to apply for legal guest worker status.
For Kennedy, enforcement alone has failed to stop illegal immigration and the Sensenbrenner bill would do nothing to fix the "broken immigration system."
"It contains punitive measures that would horribly affect many immigrants and their families," said Kennedy in an e-mailed statement. "It would unfairly punish and criminalize countless hardworking immigrants and divides American families. These Draconian measures will only drive immigrants further into the shadows."
In Boston, immigrant community activist Ana Amaral is rallying support for the protest in downtown Boston.
"People are afraid, but they shouldn't be," said Amaral. "They don't realize the strength they could have if they join forces and participate. They crossed the U.S.-Mexican border to come here risking their lives. They shouldn't be afraid of standing up for their rights."
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