Immigration uncertainty

The failure of a Senate bill sparks worries of more municipal crackdowns.

Above, Regan Cooper (left) of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition and Leah Pillsbury of the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, at a Kennett Square meeting on immigration. At right, Samuel Garcia listens to discussions.

With the Senate's immigration bill gravely wounded and unlikely to be revived until President Bush leaves office in 19 months, what happens next?

More shaky status quo, most immigration experts said, with the strong likelihood that state and local lawmakers will take matters into their own hands even though immigration is a federal prerogative.

Local laws restricting illegal immigration have been enacted in Hazleton, Pa., Riverside, N.J., and an increasing number of municipalities nationwide.

"We're very concerned about what [the bill's failure] means for local anti-immigrant ordinances," said Regan Cooper, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, an advocacy group.

Local lawmakers are not supposed to address the matter independently, Cooper said, "but they are also frustrated by the federal government's lack of action. The reason why you see Hazleton and places like that is an understandable response to a difficult situation in a broken system. But I think the right response is the reform of the federal immigration laws."

The failure of the Senate bill, which leaves the status of illegal immigrants unresolved, weighs heavily on farmers, construction contractors and meatpackers - industries dominated by immigrants, some of whom are legal, some not. Crafters of the part of the Senate bill that would have eased restrictions on farm workers hope to revive it as separate legislation.

While employers generally say that they do not knowingly hire illegal immigrants, some complained that the defeat of the bill put them under increasing pressure to make sure their employees were documented without giving them new options to legalize undocumented workers.

An estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants enter the United States each year, joining the estimated 12 million already here. No one knows how many other immigrants simply overstay their student or tourist visas and keep a low profile.

Speaking at a meeting of Hispanic officials in Florida Thursday, Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Pedro Cortes said that allowing municipalities to address the issue on an ad-hoc basis was a recipe for unfair discrimination.

"You're going to have people who could live across the street from each other being treated completely differently because they're in one city or another. That's not how it should be," he said at the meeting of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

The Republican-led defeat of the Senate bill also could have political repercussions among Latino voters.

"The longer-term danger is that the GOP is sending a message to Latinos that it doesn't want them in the party," the Wall Street Journal editorialized before the vote. "If that message sticks, Republicans could put themselves back in minority-party status for a generation or more."

Changing immigration laws was supposed to protect the economy and national security while providing pathways to "earned" citizenship for immigrants who learn English, pass civics exams, pay civil fines for having lived here illegally, and return to their home countries before reapplying for admission.

The Senate debate divided lawmakers into three basic camps:

Some wanted tighter borders and tougher enforcement of laws against employing undocumented people.

Others wanted tough enforcement first, followed by the possibility of more visas for temporary workers and eventual legalization for those already here.

A third group favored "comprehensive" reform, meaning they wanted to move forward on all fronts at once.

The issue brought out deep-seated passions and prejudices.

Putting illegal immigrants on a pathway to citizenship is tantamount to forgiving them for breaking the law, said conservatives, who called the move "amnesty."

Providing more opportunities for foreign workers to enter the United States legally, thereby driving down wages, would hurt U.S. workers, said critics with a liberal bent.

Although some Americans believe the influx of immigrants undermines the U.S. workforce, a paper released Wednesday by the White House's Council of Economic Advisers disagreed, asserting that immigrant workers tended to complement, not replace, the jobs held by workers born in the United States.

A recent telephone survey of 1,000 adults commissioned by the Philadelphia-based American Friends Service Committee found two-thirds of respondents agreed with the statement "A legal path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship should be available to all immigrants who have built a life in this country," and one-quarter disagreed. The survey had a margin of error of 2.9 percent.

In a land known as "a nation of immigrants," advocates of reform want to continue that tradition.

"If someone was in an oppressive culture and looking for a better life, no wonder they want to cross the border," said Chester County resident Jessie Cocks, 57, speaking on the sidelines of a pro-reform forum last week in Kennett Square. "People have always come here for a better life."

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or