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The new civil rights movement (by brazen invaders)

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The new civil rights movement

11/29/03

Tom Diemer Plain Dealer Bureau

Washington- They stood in khakis and work shirts on Cleveland's near West Side and in the streets of downtown Toledo, a bus idling nearby, and made their demands: College aid. Health care. Union membership. Legal status.

"Si, se puede!" cried these Hispanic "freedom riders" on their Ohio stops. "Yes, we can."

Never mind that if the federal government wanted, it could have swooped down and arrested dozens of the Spanish-speaking activists.

The illegal immigrants seeking rights had no real legal right to even be in Cleveland that day in September, or to be on the road to Washington and New York, where they continued to raise their demands.

But the government didn't swoop. And so, whether intentionally or not, the United States gave credence to a movement that could affect thousands of immigrants who come to its borders each day - folks with no franchise who nevertheless could change immigration policy.

While the news media have been filled with reports of crackdowns on Arab visitors, Latin Americans who are here illegally have been able to mount an unprecedented and open campaign to not only turn around immigration law, but also to gain benefits enjoyed by American citizens.

"It is very reminiscent of the civil rights marches of the 1960s," said Baldemar Velasquez, head of a farm workers union in Toledo.

But black Americans, riding freedom buses with white allies in the mid-1960s, were U.S. citizens, insisting on rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The argument for the immigrant cause is murky by comparison.

Ignoring the law

Critics, seeing an influx of more than 500,000 "illegals" yearly, complain that legitimate immigration laws are being ignored and that a flood of low-income workers is straining budgets and services in border states like California and Texas.

"I believe we ought not go down this road," Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions said at a recent hearing. The best way to stem illegal immigration, he said, is to stop giving benefits to those who come without documentation.

Ohio has about 40,000 undocumented workers - immigrants without visas or work permits, the Census Bureau says.

It's an immigrant presence large enough to make the state a stop on the recent Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, in which busloads of Hispanic workers rode across the country to rally for rights. Velasquez, head of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, was in downtown Toledo along with Mayor Jack Ford for the Sept. 28 rally.

On to Cleveland, the same day, John Ryan, executive secretary of the Cleveland AFL-CIO Federation of Labor, greeted a bus and participated in a demonstration at Sagrada Familia Catholic Church of more than 500 immigrant supporters, including Mexican farm workers from Ashtabula County and Guatemalan employees of a poultry plant near Dover, Ohio.

"There was some movement [on immigrants' behalf] before 9/11, and then everything stopped," Ryan said in an interview. Fear of terrorists sneaking into this country after the attacks brought not only a government clampdown at the borders, but also a reluctance by many to push for more rights, he said.

But now, the Capitol is listening. Congress is considering a range of immigration bills from amnesty for illegal workers, to a narrowly drawn measure aimed at helping children of immigrants succeed in the classroom and workplace.

"Most of this is an economic factor," Sen. Mike DeWine, Republican of Ohio, said of the surge in illegal immigration, which jumped by 1.8 million people between 1996 and 2000. "The blunt reality is when there are jobs in this country to be filled and immense poverty right across the line . . . there are people that are going to risk everything to cross that line."

Meeting needs

While a crush of immigrants may stretch services in some communities, DeWine said, illegal workers have become a vital part of the economy in a number of areas throughout the United States.

The Citizenship and Immigration Services - formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service - estimates more than 7 million people live in this country without proper papers.

About one-third are those who have overstayed their visas. Some pay no taxes, have no driver's licenses and get compensated for their work off the books. Others give their legal names, or approximations, and pay withholding taxes, including Social Security, but never file a tax return or claim a refund.

Immigrants who have come here legally often feel conflicted about the plight of those who followed without a green card.

"In one sense, we have to give them a break. But on the other hand, I really just don't want these people to come and take advantage of this country," said Wai Ching Wan, a Cleveland chemist who says he immigrated legally from Hong Kong more than 30 years ago.

Wan, president of the Organization of Chinese Americans-Greater Cleveland, says he does not resent those who come without authorization. "The United States is big enough that we can accommodate them . . . and they contribute to the economy," he said.

Wan's ambivalence is shared by Eddie Ni, a Cleveland-area restaurateur, who says he entered the United States illegally from Canada more than 20 years ago but gained legal status in 1986 when Congress allowed tens of thousands of immigrants to apply for permanent residency.

"I worked very, very hard," he said. "A lot of people look at us as foreigners. We are not foreigners. We are here to stay, and we are paying taxes."

Ni does not think undocumented workers should take jobs from U.S. citizens, but he argues that immigrants, arriving here for a better life, are eager to fit in and become productive members of society.

Conditional residency

DeWine is a co-sponsor of a bill that would give conditional residency to children of illegal immigrants who have been in the United States for at least six years, stay free of trouble and graduate from high school. If the young person goes on to college, trade school, community work or the military, he or she could apply for permanent residency after five years.

The bill passed the Judiciary Committee, 16-3, last month and could be taken up by the full Senate early next year. The White House has not taken a position. Spokesman Jim Morrell said only that "the president remains committed to improving our immigration system and making sure it is safe, humane and orderly."

A much broader "guest worker" bill co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Idaho Republican Larry Craig also has support. It would grant temporary resident status to farm workers who could prove they worked for at least 100 days over the previous 18 months.

Yet another major bill, offering an avenue for immigrants to work their way toward legal status, is co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.

To Mario Mujica, head of an organization promoting primacy of the English language, the renewed interest in immigration is little more than election-year pandering by politicians eager to pick up Hispanic votes and unions seeking new members.

"Our position is that it is perfectly fine and desirable for immigrants to keep coming - it is new blood," said Mujica, chairman of U.S. English in Washington, D.C. But "we have to have a process. We have to know, especially in this post-9/11 situation, who the heck is coming in."

Mujica arrived in 1964 from Chile on a student visa, he said. "I did all the paperwork and five years later I became a citizen."

Critics such as Mujica are not advocating mass deportations. But they want existing immigration laws strictly enforced at the nation's borders and they want those who overstay their visas identified, so they are not allowed to re-enter.

A Pew Research Center survey of 2,500 adult Americans last August found 77 percent agreed with the statement, "We should restrict and control people coming into our country to live more than we do now."

The Department of Homeland Security, parent agency for immigration services, says that on Jan. 5 it will install improved technology for accurately identifying foreigners entering at airports and seaports. The plan calls for digital photographs and inkless fingerprints to ensure individuals are who they say they are, and to snare those who overstay their visas.

In Congress, Georgia Republican Charles Norwood is promoting a bill that would authorize state and local police to ask for a visa or guest worker permit if an officer, in the course of a routine stop, has reason to believe an individual is in the country illegally.

Illegal immigrants already can get some benefits, such as emergency health care and, if they have children born in this country, food stamps. Sessions and Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo don't want it to go any further.

Tancredo would deny federal highway money to states like California that issue driver's licenses to illegal workers. Mexican immigrants often use consular identification cards to apply for licenses and open bank accounts.

"We are creating a system that rewards, encourages and [motivates] families to bring children here illegally," Sessions said at a recent hearing.

DeWine said sending them all home is not realistic.

"They are here and they are not going away," he said. "It is to our benefit as a country to make them part of the system. That is what some of these bills are trying to recognize, that reality."

"Here in Toledo," says Velasquez, who heads the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, "we say, 'Hasta la victoria.' "

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

tdiemer@plaind.com, 216-999-4212