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Coalition Urges Easing of Immigration Laws

By Steven Greenhouse
The New York Times, May 16, 2000

Jack Kemp, the former Republican candidate for vice president, and Henry G. Cisneros, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, are leading an unusual coalition of conservatives and liberals that is beginning a major campaign to persuade Congress to ease the nation's immigration laws.

Mr. Kemp and Mr. Cisneros are scheduled to announce an initiative today in conjunction with immigrant groups and the nation's Roman Catholic bishops that calls for admitting more immigrants into the United States and granting amnesty to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants.

The coalition brings together conservatives who view immigrants as an important engine for the economy with religious leaders and immigrant organizations who worry that many hard-working illegal immigrants are consigned to exploitative jobs and lives with little stability.

"What we're seeing is the beginning of a new pro-immigrant alliance that is likely to reshape immigration policy," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based group that supports the easing of restrictions on immigrants.

The coalition includes Americans for Tax Reform, the United States Catholic Conference, the Arab-American Institute, the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium and the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. Another coalition member is the National Retail Federation, one of many business groups that says that with the unemployment rate so low, business sorely need immigrant workers to fill their jobs.

"I was at a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce, the truckers organization and other businessmen, and they all said the biggest problem we face is, we're running out of workers," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

The coalition's statement comes as the presumptive presidential nominees, Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush, have sought to outmaneuver each other in wooing Hispanic-Americans and other immigrant groups.

For Mr. Kemp, the new effort is consistent with his longtime practice of prodding many Republican leaders to jettison their anti-immigrant proposals.

In a statement to be issued today, the coalition will back a proposal, embraced by President Clinton and the business community, to increase the annual ceiling for the number of immigrants with high-tech skills. But the coalition said Congress should not stop there in changing immigration laws.

The coalition called for granting legal status to more than 300,000 immigrants who fled wars and political chaos in Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and applied unsuccessfully for refugee status. The coalition said these immigrants should be treated the same as those from Cuba and Nicaragua who have been granted refugee status.

The coalition also backed granting legal status to more than 100,000 other longtime residents who have been in the United States since before 1986.

"It is getting irritating that the only immigration crisis that Congress is prepared to address is the high-tech community's crisis, while there is crisis in many other areas in immigration policy," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights group and a signer of the statement.

Last Thursday, President Clinton asked Congress to provide 200,000 visas for high-tech workers in each of the next three years, a major increase from existing law, which limits the number of such visas to 107,500 in 2001.

Mr. Clinton also called for granting legal status to some groups of longtime illegal immigrants, although many lawmakers have balked at that proposal in the past.

K. C. McAlpin, deputy director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which pushes for stricter rules on immigration, opposed the proposals to grant amnesty and increase immigration quotas.

"Our reaction is basically the same as the American people -- every time they're polled they say they want less immigration not more," Mr. McAlpin said. "The American people are adamantly opposed to rewarding people who break our laws to come here illegally."

That view clashed sharply with the one adopted by the Roman Catholic bishops. Kevin Applebee, director of migration and refugee policy for the United States Catholic Conference, said, "The bishops strongly believe that the groups involved have lived in this country for several years, established ties and built equities and thus are deserving an opportunity to remain in our country on a permanent basis."

Officials who helped negotiate the statement said several labor unions with many immigrant members were debating whether to sign. The officials said those unions hesitated for fear of clashing with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., which has opposed expanding programs that grant visas to high-tech and other skilled workers.