WASHINGTON Immigrant advocates, Hispanic organizations and refugee-assistance groups say they are alarmed at a GOP bill that is heading for a House vote as soon as Thursday.
They say the measure is an extreme anti-immigrant proposal that would send asylum seekers back to those who would persecute them and broaden the definition of human smuggling and harboring to include religious and humanitarian groups that help immigrants with basic needs.
"We are doing everything in our power to let people know that this is a huge mistake," said Marshall Fitz, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "This is an extraordinary change in the way we have treated people in this country."
The measure sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee increases penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants, stiffens sentences for people smugglers, and makes illegal presence in the United States a felony.
It also forces employers to verify the legal status of their workers and authorizes a process through which sheriffs in 29 counties along the Southern border can enforce federal immigration laws.
Security threat cited
Proponents say it would help bring order to a porous border and stop the flow of illegal immigrants. The lack of border security, they say, poses a national security threat because terrorists can sneak people or weapons into the United States. An estimated 11 million illegal entrants are in the United States.
"This legislation will help restore the integrity of our nation's borders and re-establish respect for our laws by holding violators accountable, including human traffickers, employers who hire illegal aliens, and alien gang members who terrorize communities throughout the country," Sensenbrenner said in a prepared statement.
The Senate will address the issue in January.
"Criminalizes kindness"
Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil-rights group, said that the Sensenbrenner bill broadens the definition of smuggling and harboring so much that a church group that finds someone dying of dehydration in the desert and takes him to a hospital could be potentially liable for harboring an illegal immigrant and subject to criminal penalties.
"It potentially criminalizes acts of kindness," she said.
In addition, Hispanic groups said that changing the law to make illegal presence in the United States a felony instead of a civil offense would turn all illegal immigrants including nearly 2 million children into aggravated felons.
Fitz said the bill would severely punish people for many minor immigration violations, such as a legal resident who forgets to notify the government of a change of address or a foreign student who drops a class and is no longer carrying a full 12-hour course load.
On the other side of the political spectrum, some House Republicans say the Sensenbrenner bill doesn't go far enough to stem the flow of illegal immigrants.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is planning to offer an amendment to build fences at strategic locations along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Other lawmakers said they would try to offer other amendments, including one that would end birthright citizenship for children of illegal immigrants.