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Hispanic Activists Urge Building Coalitions

Hispanic activists meeting in Los Angeles hope to see immigration reform in the United States, but say reform efforts seem to be stalled in Congress. The members of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group, say coalition-building may help resolve the impasse.

Congress remains bitterly divided over the question of how to resolve the status of 11 to 12 million people, mostly Hispanic, who live in the United States illegally. Last December, the House of Representatives passed an immigration bill that focuses on border security, and would treat illegal immigrants as felons. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest the measure.

Another bill, passed by the Senate in May, would provide a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants, while meeting employer needs for an immigrant labor pool through a guest-worker program. Neither bill will become law unless the House and Senate resolve the differences.

Most Democrats support the Senate bill, which was introduced by Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy and Republican John McCain. President Bush, a Republican, has praised the senate effort, and called for a compromise. But opponents of the senate bill, who are mostly Republican, say it rewards illegal immigrants for breaking the law.

Bruce Goldstein of the group, Farmworker Justice in Washington D.C., believes the parties can come together, despite what appears to be a congressional stalemate.

He says that two divergent groups found common ground on another issue, agreeing to provisions for a guest worker program in agriculture. A bill to implement the program is now working its way through Congress. While passage is not certain, Goldstein says the bill's supporters achieved a milestone in getting the backing of both farm workers and the farmers and agribusinesses they work for.

"If it can be done in agriculture, which historically has had tremendous labor-management conflict, then it can be done anywhere," said Bruce Goldstein. "Employers ultimately need productive workers. Workers need jobs. There's got to be a way of working that out. And in the context of the Farmworker compromise, that's what they recognized."

But the Latino community is also divided over immigration reform. Some Latinos demand an immediate amnesty for illegal immigrants, and a path to citizenship. Critics say an amnesty was offered once before, in 1986, and that another would be unfair to those who follow the rules and are waiting in line to immigrate legally.

Immigration reform cannot pass without support from both Republicans and Democrats, and most Latino leaders court both parties. Others refuse to cooperate with those who support policies that they view as half-way measures.

Angelica Salas of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles sees a broad alliance emerging of labor, religious and human rights groups, despite their differences.

"I think the challenge is how does the different type of leadership work together for their common purpose, and not say we're better than you, and we see things in a more progressive way, or we're more pure because we don't get our hands dirty in the policy work," said Angelica Salas. "But at the end of the day, just understand that everybody has a role. And I think it comes down to the individual and the individual organization saying, What is the best I can do in order to advance just and humane immigration laws?"

Don Kerwin of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network in Washington is confident that immigration reform will happen, sooner or later.

"I think it's inevitable," said Don Kerwin. "It may not happen this year. There may not be the kind of positive legislation that we need this year, but you have 11 million undocumented people in the country. You have the peaceful protests that have occurred over the last year, so the ground has really shifted, and it looks like there has to be some kind of positive solution over the next two, three years."

Former president Bill Clinton addressed the opening session of the conference Saturday, and he urged Latinos to assure other Americans that they are equally concerned with border security and the rule of law.

He said undocumented workers make up five percent of the workforce, and that it would be impractical and inhumane to deport them. Besides, he added, the U.S. economy relies on their labor.