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IMMIGRATION - Spot protest focuses on Senate debate

A hastily called rally in Monument Square today protested a political tactic in Washington DC that has senators racing against the clock to finalize a proposal for "comprehensive immigration reform," lest a draconian and simplistic solution be enacted in its stead.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) has said he will open debate on the Senate floor as early as tomorrow, whether or not the Senate Judiciary Committee completes its work. If the committee does not finish revisions to the 300-page bill, Frist will move debate on his own 243-page bill, the "Securing America's Borders Act," S.2454, which echoes a bill the House of Representatives passed earlier this month, making it a felony to be an illegal immigrant, and funding a 700-mile fence along the 2000-mile border the US shares with Mexico.

(President Bush has proposed a form of work permit for immigrants without other legal working papers, as a way of beginning to regulate the class of people without sending them all home as criminals. He has also asked that the debate over immigration reform be "conducted in a civil and dignified way." It is unclear if he meant by that "conducted in a very few rushed hours in the face of nationwide protests.")

The main concern of activists and advocates, however, is not just that the government is again upping the stakes for the country's poorest and weakest residents - those people who, because they are here illegally have little protection under the law, and are often exploited by people who threaten to turn them in.

The advocates' concern this time is that they themselves will be targeted by the government. Under one version of the proposal, which by this afternoon seemed to be weakening, even those who try to help the needy would become criminals if even one person they helped was an immigrant without documentation of legal entry into the US.  This has raised the ire of, among others, the Catholic Church, whose soup-kitchen and homeless-shelter volunteers and staff would suddenly become criminals.

Sarah Harden, a multicultural caseworker at Preble Street, a social-services agency in Portland, said she is "very worried about this," particularly because she is now forbidden from asking someone seeking help whether they are in the US legally or not.

If the law change happens, she would likely be required to verify a person's legal-immigrant status before offering aid, such as a trip to a doctor or a school, to protect herself and her organization from criminal charges.

That, in turn, would deter people who are here illegally from seeking help, she said. "This is the most vulnerable population that we work with," and they need to be able to trust her before they seek help.

On the other side of Congress Street, Shawn Loura, known in the past as the Monument Square Peace Guy, chanted anti-immigrant slogans, such as "Protect our borders - it's not about hate" and "Send illegals home." He was helped by David Robertiello, who held a sign reading "Protect US border from illegals."

Loura, now an independent candidate for governor, said he believed illegal immigrants should be sent home and people who help them once they have arrived in this country should be "penalized."

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