WASHINGTON – The immigration debate is increasingly taking on a human face as senators and Christian groups are seeing the national crisis through the lens of their own immigrant grandparents or through the eyes of the affected families.
Among the top challenges before the Senate is to resolve the bill's treatment of family members of illegal immigrants. While some support a point-system placing priority of education and skills over family ties, others are rallying in support of keeping the family together.
Humanitarian agency Church World Service launched its "Take 5 for Immigrants" campaign yesterday urging its constituents to take five minutes from Tuesday to Friday to call their senators about amendments being voted on that day.
The goal of the campaign is to proactively bring to the immigration reform debate the voice and values of the U.S. ecumenical community to promote family unity, a workable immigration system, and the humane treatment of all individuals.
"The week of June 4 could be crucial in determining what kind of immigration reform the U.S. Senate will pass," said Joe Roberson, director of the CWS Immigration and Refugee Program, in a statement.
"There is so much at stake in every section of the bill that it would be irresponsible for us not to educate and advocate about each part as it comes before the senate for action," Roberson added. "Members of Congress need to bring their common sense, human empathy, realism, and fairness to the immigration policy debate."
The comprehensive immigration reform bill, drafted by White House negotiators and a bi-partisan group of senators, would legalize about 12 million illegal immigrants, tighten border security, and enforce new bans on hiring illegal workers.
The "grand bargain" bill also creates a contentious guest worker program and a new point system for evaluating future immigrants based on education and work skills rather than family ties to U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
Emotions have run high even on the Senate floor as senators told stories of their own immigrant roots as descendants of those from Italy, Ireland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Cuba, according to USA Today.
"Whether your family was part of the men and women who made the voyage on the Mayflower or part of the millions who stepped off of Ellis Island, or part of those who were brought to this nation against their will – or if, like my own parents, you came to this country fleeing tyranny and in search of freedom – we have a connection to this nation," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), according to USA Today.
"This deal would have prevented my own parents, a carpenter and a seamstress, from coming to this country."
In May, Dan Kosten, a representative of the evangelical agency World Relief, had spoken to Congress calling on an immigration bill that fosters the maintenance of the immigrant family unit.
"We have seen the consequences of a broken system that has separated families for many years," Kosten warned the House subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law.
The evangelical representative, who is director of the agency's immigrant programs, called for legislators to have a family-oriented approach to comprehensive immigration reform including reducing visa waiting time for separated families.
World Relief has helped resettle more than 200,000 refugees and assisted thousands of immigrant families across the United States.
Some in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have also expressed concern over the bill's disruption of the immigrant family.
Conservatives, however, believe family ties are being abused by illegal immigrants whose U.S.-born children are citizens. Moreover, some fear a chain of illegal immigrants that will cross the border if family ties are given priority.
Supporters of the bill, who are hearing heavy criticism from the far-left and far-right, say this is the best chance for Congress to take action on the immigration problem – possibly for years to come, according to The Associated Press.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) is proposing a family-focused amendment to allow more than 800,000 people who had applied for permanent legal status by the beginning of the year to get green cards based on family connections. The bill in its current format ends family preference for most waiting families after May 2005.
Several democrats including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) have also proposed family-related amendments.
Senate majority leader, Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said he will try to end debate on the comprehensive immigration bill by a Senate vote to limit debate on Thursday. Reid has threatened to remove the bill if it fails to get the needed votes.