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Originally published December 15, 2009 at 9:43 PM | Page modified December 16, 2009 at 12:01 AM

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Coalition pushes for immigration reform

A largely pro-immigrant reform measure introduced in Congress on Tuesday was celebrated at rallies in Seattle and across the country even as critics declared it an affront to hardworking Americans struggling in a weak job market.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A largely pro-immigrant reform measure introduced in Congress on Tuesday was celebrated at rallies in Seattle and across the country even as critics declared it an affront to hardworking Americans struggling in a weak job market.

A coalition of Hispanic, black, Asian and other House lawmakers unveiled a long-anticipated immigration-reform bill that would extend legal status to nearly 12 million illegal immigrants while expanding the number of legal immigrants allowed into the country.

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez is the prime sponsor of the bill, which would require employers to verify the status of new hires, address issues of violence on the U.S.-Mexican border and provide more options for illegal immigrants to be able to remain here if they have U.S.-born children.

"For the first time in a long time ... I feel that the urgency on the ground and the urgency in Congress have finally converged," said Pramila Jayapal, executive director of OneAmerica, a local advocacy group, who was in Washington, D.C., for Tuesday's announcement.

"This is not the easiest issue, but it is a critical one — for families and for workers and for businesses and for the economy. I feel more positive than I've felt in a long time for a bill to pass this spring."

"Sellout"

Those who favor controlled immigration immediately attacked the measure.

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, dubbed it, "no illegal immigrant left behind" legislation, what he called "a wholesale sellout of the interest of the American people in favor of the interest of illegal immigrants."

"To be introducing a bill saying all illegal immigrants in the country can now compete for every job in the country, to expand family- and employment-based immigration is an affront to millions of Americans struggling to keep their heads above water," he said.

But sponsors of the bill disagree.

"For those who say that given the state of our economy, given the unemployment rate, this is not the time, I would say to you there is no wrong or right time," said Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "There is a moral obligation."

Any attempt to reform immigration — a promise President Obama made during his campaign — likely won't happen until after Congress finishes its work on a health-care overhaul. The Senate is expected to vote first on its own immigration bill — yet to be introduced.

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And even with broad support from labor, religious and business interests, there is some skepticism whether Democrats will have the political will to take up immigration reform so soon after a tough health-care debate and with 2010 elections looming.

Latest attempt

The latest attempt at immigration reform comes two years after Congress last tried — and failed — to reform immigration through a measure that called for both amnesty and stricter border enforcement. Back then, unemployment was half what it is now.

Among other things, the Gutierrez bill seeks to:

• Prohibit the use of detention to separate families with children;

• Establish "serious" penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants;

• Tighten controls over the hiring of temporary foreign workers;

• Establish rules for granting legal status to foreign investors who create jobs in this country.

For employers and many groups advocating for immigrants, perhaps the most significant part of the bill would extend legal status to illegal immigrants who can prove they were in the country as of Tuesday — even if they are currently in the process of being deported.

To qualify they must register with the federal government, pay a $500 fine for each adult, learn English, pass background checks and meet other requirements. They then are eligible for a six-year temporary visa and a green card after that. The last time illegal immigrants were granted wholesale amnesty was in 1986 when about 2.8 million people gained legal status.

"For the bargain-basement price of $500 you get all the benefits and privileges of an American citizen," Mehlman said.

Art Gallegos, chair of the Skagit Immigrant Rights Council who attended Tuesday's rally at Victor Steinbrueck Park, said legalization offers hope to those who came here simply to work.

"A husband goes off to work in the morning and in the evening he doesn't come back ... He's the sole support for the family," Gallegos said. "So many families are being broken apart, creating widespread misery."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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