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Immigration bill elicits sharply divergent views

A contentious debate over immigration this month in Washington is echoing in Boston and around the country.

Immigrant and interfaith groups plan to march down Tremont Street on March 27, the day the US Senate is expected to vote on a bill dealing with the country's illegal immigrant population, now estimated at nearly 12 million.

The US House of Representatives already has passed its own bill that would expand the fence along the US-Mexico border and increase and expand the legal penalties for living in the country illegally and for aiding illegal immigrants.

It has drawn particularly vehement fire from advocates of immigrants who say the measure, if passed, would criminalize priests, social workers, and others who help illegal immigrants. People who work with immigrants would have to see documentation proving that the immigrants are in the country legally before they could provide services to them.

''It would, in essence, criminalize acts of goodness and kindness," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition whose group is helping to organize the Boston rally.

About 100,000 people protested the House bill on March 10 in Chicago and groups have staged smaller protests in recent weeks in Washington and around the country. In East Boston's Maverick Square, an interfaith group called for a more immigrant-friendly reform this month. The Boston City Council, meanwhile, weighed in March 8 with a resolution that noted that one in every four Boston residents is an immigrant and ''recognizes the dignity of all our immigrant residents, regardless of their immigration status."

Groups that support the House bill's emphasis on stepped-up enforcement, meanwhile, are using Internet chat groups and e-mail newsletters to urge members to call Washington about the bill being crafted in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The House bill is only one vision of what could become law. Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, the Judiciary Committee chairman, has filed his own bill that would establish a temporary worker program and add high-technology security measures at the border. And a bill filed by Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Arizona Republican John McCain would provide immigrants opportunities to become citizens, and would have the US work with foreign governments to reduce the immigrant flow.

Once the Senate passes its bill, the two chambers of Congress would have to work out their differences before presenting a version to President Bush for signing. Noorani, whose group supports the Kennedy-McCain bill, said spending billions more on expanding enforcement is an unrealistic approach, given that stepped-up border policing in recent years has not been effective.

According to a study published March 7 by the Pew Hispanic Center, illegal immigrants now make up about one in every 20 US workers, or nearly 12 million people. Efforts to slow their entry have shown little effect and, the study concluded, have had the unintended consequence of persuading people who are in the United States illegally to stay longer instead of risking movements back and forth across the border.

On the other side of the debate, Robert Casimiro of Weymouth, president of the Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform, said the country should focus on securing the borders and deporting immigrants already in the country illegally.

''When the government gets that done, maybe we can talk about a guest worker program," said Casimiro, who supports the House bill but remains skeptical that lawmakers will provide the necessary funding and enforcement to make a difference.

''It won't mean a thing unless they get serious about it -- unless they back it up with funding and a commitment from the executive branch," said Casimiro.

He said his group has nearly 250 Massachusetts residents on its mailing list.

One of those on the list is Thomas White, a live-in supervisor of a Beacon Hill condominium building who is concerned that illegal immigration is threatening the country's security and way of life.

''We don't know who is coming over our border," White said. ''If we don't have protection of our border, we have no country."

Business leaders have long maintained that the country's economy depends on immigrant workers. The American Hotel and Lodging Association and the National Restaurant Association reiterated this view last month in a joint letter to Congress urging lawmakers to pass a measure that would address national security without curtailing the flow of immigrant workers its members rely on to head off ''a mounting labor shortage." The letter went on to state that ''foreign-born workers are necessary to help fill the jobs where no Americans are available."

But White isn't buying the argument. He said he has nothing against immigrants but fears the growing illegal population is taking middle-class jobs and driving down wages.

''I'm a Christian man and I know that I'm supposed to extend my hand outward to my fellow human beings," White said. ''But if you had 10 or 20 people storm into your house, how would you feel?"

William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, a political action group based in Raleigh, N.C., that states it has members in 50 states, said what's needed is enforcement of existing immigration law, noting that the federal government has essentially abandoned efforts to police companies that employ illegal workers.

''Under George W. Bush, there were zero complaints filed [against companies] last year," said Gheen, who believes lax enforcement has emboldened illegal immigrants. He said ''75,000 illegal aliens marching down the streets, out in the open, is utterly ridiculous," referring to the March 7 march in Chicago to protest the House bill.

According to press reports, illegal aliens and immigrant advocates, who took to the streets chanting, ''We are not criminals, we are workers," actually numbered about 100,000 people. It was one of several marches across the country this month to voice support for more immigrant-friendly legislation. In Washington, thousands of Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans, clad in green and white T-shirts, rallied on Capitol Hill on March 8. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, Cardinal Roger Michael Mahony has said he would order the priests he supervises to defy any law that would require them to ask for immigration papers before providing help to anyone.

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