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 CNS Story:

YEAREND-IMMIGRATION Dec-11-2006 (690 words) With photos and logo. xxxn

Debate, rallies, rhetoric, but little lawmaking on immigration

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In some ways, 2006 ended as it began for the prospect of immigration reform legislation, with one highly unpopular bill that emphasized enforcement waiting on a shelf, and backers of a more comprehensive approach crossing their fingers that cooler heads would prevail in the new year.

But between the December 2005 House passage of a strict enforcement bill and the end of the 109th congressional session in mid-December 2006, the topic of immigration was one of the liveliest -- and at times most contentious -- subjects getting attention around the nation.

Millions of people participated in rallies and marches across the country in the spring, calling for the defeat of the House bill and its provisions that would have criminalized the act of being in the country illegally, allowed felony prosecution of anyone who offered assistance to illegal immigrants and penalized local and state governments not actively prosecuting illegal immigrants, which is currently only a federal responsibility.

In the end, the main immigration legislation that passed out of the 109th Congress encompassed some provisions in the Homeland Security Department's appropriations bill dealing with security improvements and Border Patrol staffing and a bill to construct 700 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Funding for the fence was not approved. And before members of Congress had even left town for Christmas, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a possible Democratic candidate for president in 2008, was urging the new Democrat-controlled Congress to reverse the bill as it works on more comprehensive immigration legislation.

In the spring, a broad coalition of churches, social service agencies, unions, business organizations and immigrant groups teamed up to organize some of the biggest rallies and marches seen in this country since the Vietnam War and the civil rights marches of the 1960s and 1970s.

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas to protest the House bill. The crowds of native-born Americans and immigrants urged Congress to instead pass legislation that would provide a path to legalization for the estimated 10 million to 12 million people in the country illegally.

In addition to those big-city protests, thousands of people in dozens of small cities and towns took off from work and school to join in asking for changes in the legal immigration system to make family reunification a more viable option and for a guest worker program and legal protections for immigrant workers. A Senate bill that included many of those provisions passed in May.

But House and Senate leaders were never able to even bring the two bills to the negotiating table to see if there was a compromise version they could get out of their chambers. Just days before Congress adjourned in advance of the November elections, the border fence bill was separated from the original House bill and pushed through both the House and Senate and signed into law.

The get-tough approach to the border apparently had little effect in keeping its most vocal supporters in office. Some of the most strident supporters of enforcement-only legislation were not elected or re-elected to Congress. Exit polling indicated that many people who had participated in the rallies and marches in the spring turned out to vote in November, many for the first time.

Frustration with waiting for Congress to act led more than a dozen towns to pass ordinances intended to drive illegal immigrants away. Hazleton, Pa., was among the first, passing a law in June that makes it illegal to rent housing or give jobs to people who are not in the country legally. Hazleton's ordinance remained under a temporary restraining order blocking its enforcement while the law's constitutionality was being challenged.

Through all this, the U.S. Catholic bishops' Justice for Immigrants campaign continued to educate Catholics about the church's teachings related to migration. As the year came to a close, the bishops turned their attention to the problems of minors who cross into the United States on their own and how they are treated by the federal government.

END


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