This week, the U.S. Senate will consider legislation that would define milllions of undocumented persons as felons and punish anyone who assists or encourages them to remain in the United States. That includes doctors and nurses who treat undocumented persons, as well as social workers and clergy who minister to them.
Thousands of mostly Latin American protesters gathered on the west lawn of the Capitol Tuesday to express their opposition to the legislation, known as the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act. They want the U.S. Senate to defeat the bill which already passed the House of Representatives.
But the bill has strong support from the Bush administration, and if passed in the senate, the President said he will sign it into law.
Elvira Craig de Silva, head of the National Association of Social Workers, says her organization opposes the legislation because under it any group that helps undocumented immigrants could be considered criminals. "It would endanger the human rights and civil liberties of immigrants and it would make the jobs of social workers perilous," she said.
Many health care providers, social workers and schools do not ask people their immigration status before providing assistance. But DeSilva says the proposed law would turn them into immigration police, requiring them to report suspected undocumented individuals to the U.S. government.
David Chandrasekaran of the American Medical Student Association says such a legal obligation goes against physicians' professional oath to help those in need. "We did not go into medicine to be told we cannot treat certain people. We did not go into medicine to be punished for healing people when they are sick. We did not go into medicine to become enlisted as soldiers for the Department of Homeland Security and their war on immigrants," he said.
Many educators are also angry about the proposed legislation. "Education is one of the values of our country; education is the key to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. The proposed bill that we are considering and discussing this afternoon, will destroy that value. It will be a sad day for our country if our laws put education on the level of criminality because we are not selective on those to whom we educate," said Ruth Burgos-Sasscer, a retired teacher from the state of Texas.
Another opponent, Carolyn DeLeon, who works with undocumented Asian workers in New York, says protections should be enforced for all immigrants, no matter their status. "Turning almost 11 million undocumented immigrants into criminals is not the solution for broken immigration laws," she said.
Roman Catholic leaders have come out against the measure and say they will defy the law if it is passed.
Supporters of the legislation say it provides more resources for border security, criminal penalties for those who engage in immigration fraud and cracks down on human smuggling operations in border areas.
The bill would also authorize construction of a border fence between the U.S. and Mexico.
Opponents of the legislation say comprehensive immigration reform is needed that will help reunite families, protect workers and provide a path to citizenship for undocumented workers currently living in the United States.