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Migrant Hopefuls Demand Easier Path

April 13, 2006 By:
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Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets on Monday to demand immigration reform, including this person, who attended the Love Park rally in Center City.
Michael Magana is well over six feet tall, but due to the tightly packed crowd and large banners obstructing his view, the Drexel University student could barely see the musicians and singers who had crammed onto the small stage. Yet he was clearly enjoying the sound of traditional mariachi music, with its signature guitar strains, as the notes echoed throughout John F. Kennedy Plaza in Center City, better known as Love Park.

The 25-year-old was one of more than 7,000 people who had converged across the street from City Hall during the April 10 rally - one of dozens staged across the country - calling for a new immigration policy that would offer the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants a shot at American citizenship.

Waving Mexican, Honduran and Dominican flags alongside the red, white and blue of the Stars and Stripes, the crowd kept returning to the chant of "si, se puede," or "Yes, we can."

"I was born in America, but I am here for the immigrants," said Magana, who grew up in California and whose parents were born in Mexico. "It's time we recognize their value and not demoralize them."

While speakers pointed out that the rally drew workers from across the globe - from Bangladesh to Sierra Leone - the mention of Mexico by far drew the loudest cheers from the crowd.

Still, officials with several Jewish organizations, both local and national, said it would be a mistake to label immigration reform a purely Hispanic issue. Those groups are lobbying hard to make sure that strict legislation in the House of Representatives meant to crack down on illegal immigration does not become the law of the land.

"The young immigrant organizers - they remind me of our parents who were immigrant organizers, who built our unions, who fought for social security," said Judith Bernstein-Baker, executive director of HIAS and Council Migration Service of Greater Philadelphia. "There has to be a pathway to permanency for individuals who are already here, who pay taxes and who demonstrate their interest in integrating into U.S. society."

Stressing the Jewish people's historical connection to immigration to America, HIAS is working with groups, such as the Reform movement, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, in pushing for immigration reform that secures America's borders from terrorists, but doesn't treat those seeking a better way of life as criminals.

Opponents of such a proposal - which would offer, in some cases, amnesty to illegal immigrants - have said that the policy would reward those who knowingly skirted the law and would place undue strain on an already depressed American job market.

An Appeal for Fairness
At a rally in Washington, D.C. on Monday, Rabbi Scott Sperling, director of the Union for Reform Judaism's Mid-Atlantic Council, said such concerns served only to punish the innocent.

"During the Passover season, Jews are reminded of Leviticus' command, 'When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong,' " Sperling told the crowd of more than 100,000. "As a people of faith, we keep this principle in mind as we join the calls for a generous and fair immigration policy that focuses on solutions, not punishment."

The demonstrations came on the heels of last week's collapse in the Senate Judiciary Committee of efforts to come up with a compromise between a bill introduced last fall by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) - that included a temporary worker program - and one put forth by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) imposing tougher penalties on illegal immigrants discovered by authorities.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who has come out in favor of the proposal currently in the Senate, nevertheless urged calm in the wake of the demonstrations.

"I have long supported creating a path to citizenship for many of the undocumented immigrants, but Congress should not be unduly influenced by marches," said Specter in a statement.

Hoping that Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) would follow Specter's lead on the immigration issue, Bernstein-Baker led what she described as an interfaith delegation in a meeting with staff at the senator's Center City office immediately following the rally.

Santorum could not be reached for comment on the issue.

Among those backing the tougher House proposal, Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-District 6) stressed that the issue first and foremost boiled down to a question of security.

"We cannot begin to address the issue if we do not first take steps to solve the nation's open boarder problem," he said in an e-mail, adding that he does support measures, short of amnesty, to allow the "hardest working immigrants" the opportunity to work and pay taxes.

On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-District 13), through a spokesperson, explained her opposition to the Sensenbrenner legislation because of an objection to one particular provision.

Rachel Magnunson said that Schwartz supports tough immigration laws, but couldn't back a bill that would potentially make it a felony to aid an illegal immigrant.

"This could affect a rabbi working at a soup kitchen, serving food to an undocumented individual," said Magnunson. "This is a very serious issue and there are no easy answers."

Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee, saw in the rallies this week evidence that immigration reform, after a spirited debate in the late 1990s, could once again end up as an election issue in 2006.

"Everyone agrees that we are dealing with a broken immigration system," he said. "It's not going to be dealt with unless we reform the system."

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