Hispanic, black, Asian and other House lawmakers backing immigration overhaul called Tuesday for legalizing illegal immigrants in the U.S., despite a weakened economy and joblessness.
The coalition of lawmakers said Tuesday immigration reform can protect American workers as well as bring into the mainstream economy productive immigrant workers who have lived in the shadows because of their illegal status.
“For those who say that given the state of our economy, given the unemployment rate, this is not the time, I would say to you there is no wrong or right time. There is a moral obligation,” said Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who has become a leader of a multiethnic coalition of immigration reform backers, said immigration reform opponents “will use it as a wedge issue and will blame everything from unemployment to rising health care costs on immigrants.”
“The immigrant blame game is constant,” Gutierrez told a packed Capitol Hill news conference.
Immigration reform also means tougher penalties for employers who hire illegal workers, rules requiring foreign investors given U.S. visas to create jobs in this country, restrictions on hiring of foreign workers, he said.
Although there has been a report of a better-than-expected increase in production in the U.S. economy, experts say it remains weak and recovery continues to be slow.
That has led some to suggest that early next year — as some are expecting — is not the time to bring up immigration reform and certainly not to legalize illegal immigrants.
“Illegal immigrants currently occupy 8 million jobs. Those stolen jobs rightfully belong to citizens and legal immigrants. We could cut the unemployment rate in half simply by enforcing immigration laws!” said Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
An immigration reform bill proposed by Gutierrez seeks to legalize undocumented immigrants by requiring them to register with the federal government, pay a $500 fine for each adult, learn English, pass background checks and meet other requirements. They then are eligible for a six-year visa and when that is done a green card.
It contains numerous other proposals.
The bill was unveiled Tuesday, but lawmakers acknowledged the Senate will vote first. There is some skepticism whether Democrats will be willing to take up immigration reform early next year so soon after a tough health care debate and with 2010 elections gearing up.
“What we are doing is getting ready so when they are done with their work, we can quickly act,” Gutierrez said.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.