By LUCIA GRAVES
January 30, 2006
All of these people and more could face criminal charges under a new border security bill passed by the House last month. Though the controversial provision may be unlikely to become law, it has incited active lobbying campaigns and vehement debate.
"It's an unjust bill," said Cathy Caples, executive director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Fresno. "Immigrants don't have much in the way of income or benefits, so my agency provides help to them. ... Our mission is to provide help to anyone in need."
Caples has no intention to stop helping the needy, legally or otherwise. Other service-oriented groups are also alarmed, particularly in California, where an estimated 2.4 million illegal immigrants live.
"We're not going to stop doing what we're doing just because some members of Congress want to pound their chests and say they're tough on immigration" said Jose Rodriguez, executive director of the Stockton-based Latino empowerment group El Concilio.
Current immigration law pinpoints anyone who "conceals, harbors, or shields from detection" an illegal immigrant. Existing law also identifies anyone who "encourages or induces an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States" as subject to prosecution.
The new bill, however, goes further. Now, under Section 202 of the legislation, anyone who "assists, encourages, directs, or induces a person to reside in or remain in the United States" can be sentenced to five years in prison. The sentence can reach 20 years if the offense is committed for financial gain.
The new bill also requires that anyone providing aid determine the legal status of the person whom they wish to help, lest they be found to be "knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such a person is an alien".
Some consider this necessary.
"If they're interested in obeying the law, they should ask the question," said Paul Egan, director of government relations at the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Egan, whose group advocates tighter controls on immigration, draws a distinct line between heartfelt convictions and legal responsibilities.
"If these groups are knowingly assisting illegal immigrants, they may feel morally compelled to provide that assistance, but they certainly ought to be held legally accountable for violating the law," Egan said.
Egan argued that the new bill simply "makes the law a little more expansive" and that it offer authorities "a bit more discretion as to the range of those who might be prosecuted or charged."
Egan is not alone in his support of tougher border standards. In December, the House passed the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act by 239-182. It may be a rare lawmaker, though, who read all 572 pages of the bill and its accompanying report; many may not have looked at this provision at all.
The bill, authored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, has created some surprising alliances: labor and some of San Joaquin Valley's most conservative lawmakers are fighting on the same side. Most of the San Joaquin Valley's House members voted against the bill, as did all of the San Francisco Bay Area's Democratic representatives.
"Obviously I won't support a bill with a ridiculous provision in it like that" said Visalia Republican Devin Nunes, who voted against the bill.
Mariposa Republican George Radanovich agreed.
"People are compassionate by nature" Radanovich said, "and whether they are breaking the law or not, they don't want to see others die in the desert trying to cross the border."
Marc Grossman, the Sacramento-based spokesman for the United Farm Workers of America, said the union has launched a letter-writing campaign against the legislation. The union typically gets thousands of activists to respond to such campaigns, he said. The Los Angeles-based National Immigrant Solidarity Network, among others, is likewise rallying supporters to "build multi-ethnic community actions" against the bill.
If it is uncommon for Grossman to be allied with Republican congressmen, it is even less common for him to be on the same side as Bush ally and Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist.
"Some icky people stuck some very icky stuff in there" said Norquist.
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