Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, November 27, 2009
The new leader of the nation's largest Latino legal advocacy organization says immigrants' rights forces should focus on modest gains - such as the right to an education for the undocumented, and the right of lesbians and gays to sponsor partners as immigrants - if Congress doesn't overhaul the immigration system by early 2010.
"I think we've waited long enough. It's time for some down payments," Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in an interview during a visit to San Francisco.
Saenz took the job in August after the Obama administration, under pressure from conservatives who saw him as too friendly to undocumented immigrants, withdrew an offer to nominate him as head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
He said MALDEF's top priority is still comprehensive immigration legislation that would offer a path to legalization, with a waiting period and minimal fines or penalties, to the millions of "undocumented immigrants who have been contributing to society."
But Saenz said he is not optimistic about passage of such a measure in an election year.
The immigration debate "has been coarsened," and President Obama is apparently trying to avoid controversy, Saenz said. He cited Obama's support for a provision in the health care bill sponsored by Senate Democratic leaders that would prohibit illegal immigrants from using their own money to buy coverage in government-backed insurance exchanges.
That restriction is not contained in the House bill, which would bar illegal immigrants from using government subsidies to buy insurance through the exchanges but would let them make the purchases with their own money.
"There seems to be a perception that (immigration) is somehow the third rail of politics," Saenz said. He said immigrants' rights supporters have de-emphasized some lesser measures while concentrating on their main goal, and might be wise to refocus on those measures in the coming year.
Others want to fight
Not all advocates agree.
"The environment, the way we've seen it ... makes us increasingly confident that we're going to see comprehensive immigration reform," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. The Obama administration, he said, has "underestimated political support for immigrants," as shown in the health bill that the House approved Nov. 7.
"Instead of a down payment, we should be talking about a major investment," Noorani said.
The Obama administration expects Congress to start moving on a comprehensive immigration measure, including legalization, in early 2010, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a Nov. 13 speech. Saenz said this week that he was encouraged by Napolitano's comments but "they do not change my position that we need legislation now."
The measures that Saenz wants MALDEF and its allies to promote in 2010 would:
-- Allow children who entered the United States illegally, and later graduated from high school, to earn legal residence by obtaining a college degree or serving in the armed forces.
-- Allow undocumented farm workers to qualify for legal residence with five to seven years of agricultural employment.
-- Allow lesbians and gays to sponsor their partners for immigration as family members, just as other U.S. citizens and legal residents can now sponsor their spouses or close relatives.
-- Prohibit state and local governments from passing immigration laws that are more restrictive than federal law, such as an Arizona statute requiring employers to verify their workers' immigration status. That law is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Backs sanctuary laws
"We should have one uniform nationwide policy (on immigration penalties)," Saenz said. He said cities such as San Francisco should be free to establish more generous policies through sanctuary laws that discourage authorities from reporting suspected illegal immigrants to federal authorities.
MALDEF, a nonprofit founded in 1968, was based in San Francisco until 1986, when it moved to Los Angeles. Saenz, 43, was a lawyer with the fund from 1993 until 2005, when he left to become chief counsel to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
While with the organization, he argued the lawsuit that overturned Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that would have eliminated public services to illegal immigrants.
He also represented day laborers fighting local restrictions on soliciting work, and unsuccessfully challenged a 1998 initiative that virtually outlawed bilingual education.
Attorney General-designate Eric Holder offered him the Civil Rights Division job in January, but told him two months later that the administration had decided not to nominate him, Saenz said.
Some anti-immigration groups labeled Saenz an extremist and an "open-borders advocate." But Saenz said the focus of the backlash, which followed Justice Department leaks of the prospective appointment, was his MALDEF work, particularly the Prop. 187 suit.
He said Holder told him he could probably win Senate confirmation, but "at too high of a cost to the administration, the department and to me."
Although the Obama administration has taken some courageous stands on other issues, Saenz said, in his case, "I wish they had shown more backbone."