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3/21 Trenton, NJ: 1,200 rally against bill on illegal immigration

1,200 rally against bill on illegal immigration
Tuesday, March 21, 2006


TRENTON -- Railing against a congressional proposal to make illegal immigration a felony, some 1,200 immigrant-rights advocates gathered outside the State House on Monday to push for easing the path to U.S. citizenship.

Amid a sea of flags from the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, protesters lobbied against a measure they said would punish those who contribute to the U.S. economy by working low-wage jobs while still paying sales and other taxes.

"This is the voice of the voiceless," said Mahonrry Hidalgo, head of the immigration committee of the Latino Leadership Alliance. "We are part of the workforce of this country."

Participants in the rally held hand-lettered signs declaring, "We are workers, not terrorists," and "We do work that gringos will never do," and frequently interrupted speakers with chants of "Si, se puede," or "Yes, we can."
Organizers specifically sought to draw attention to what they called the punitive nature of a bill by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. Approved in the House in December, the measure would make unlawful presence in the United States -- currently a civil offense -- a felony.

The bill is up for a March 27 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has offered revisions that some immigrant supporters say would create a permanent tier of "second-class" residents without a path to citizenship.

Instead, they favor a proposal by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., permitting illegal immigrants already in the United States to remain for six years if they stay employed and pay a $1,000 fine. They would then become eligible for permanent residency.

An alternative proposal by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., would permit employed illegal immigrants to stay for five years -- but they would then have to leave, pay fines and then apply to reenter the country.

New Jersey Citizens for Immigration Control, which supports the Sensenbrenner bill, called the protesters lawbreakers and tax evaders who threaten domestic security.

"We've been invaded, and the administration is looking the other way," the group said in a written statement.

Rafael Leon, an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, said he thinks the McCain proposal is the more just approach. With his wife and three young daughters in tow, Leon said he hoped to show legislators that people like him are hard workers trying to build better lives for their families.

"We want the legislators to see that we are not criminals. Maybe then they will feel a bit more humanely toward us," said Leon, 32, who has worked for five years in landscaping and construction around Vineland.

"We contribute to the economy of this country."

Similar protests have been staged around the country in the past several weeks, including one in Chicago on March 10 that drew about 100,000 people.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates there are about 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, with about 360,000 in New Jersey. They account for nearly 5 percent of the national civilian workforce, or 7.2 million workers, with about 850,000 undocumented immigrants arriving each year.

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