Capitol Hill holds watch on immigration events

A national worker boycott set for Monday may spur Senate to act - or erode support for broad reform.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Meat-packing plants are planning to pack it in for the day. In Las Vegas, some casinos are bracing for a shutdown, and restaurants from San Diego to Bethesda, Md., are about to test whether senior staff can bus tables or sear scallops.

As companies cope with the hard-to-predict impact of Monday's worker boycott by immigrants and their backers, a big unknown is political: Will the walkout help break a legislative logjam in the Senate over immigration reform - and even affect outcomes in fall congressional elections?

Here's the state of play on Capitol Hill. The GOP-controlled House has approved a border-security bill, including a provision that makes it a felony (rather than a civil crime) to be in the US illegally, that Democrats believe will hurt Republicans in the fall elections. The Senate, in considering its version of the bill, is stuck over whether to include a guest-worker program and path to legal status for as many as 12 million foreigners already in the country.

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Last week, President Bush weighed in. He summoned key senators to the White House on Tuesday to help break the impasse. He promised to help work out a compromise with the House, should the Senate produce a bill. "I'm not a supporter of boycotts. I'm a supporter of comprehensive immigration," he said at a White House press conference on Friday. A temporary guest-worker program will "make it easier to enforce the border," Mr. Bush added.

By the weekend the Senate's Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, signaled "flexibility" on allowing votes on amendments to the bill - the procedural roadblock that earlier had shut down debate. "He still has very serious concerns about the idea that this bill will be hijacked in conference by the right wing of the [Republican] party," says Democratic spokesman Jim Manley.

Both political parties are waiting to see the scale and tenor of Monday's boycott, especially whether it provokes a backlash to immigrant rights - a development that would help the case of those who do not want a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

"It could very well backfire," says Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas. Even supporters of some kind of amnesty for those in the US illegally, such as farm and ranch groups in his home state, are concerned about the boycott, he says. "What we need is an environment in which we are not shouting to each other, but we are actually talking to each other as we try to work through this very difficult issue."

In the run-up to Monday's boycott, some key supporters of the immigrants rights movement urged backers not to walk off the job or leave their classrooms. In Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahoney told Catholic parishes to mark the day by taking time to respect "the dignity of work, the value of education, and the important role immigrants play."

Senate Democrats who have supported previous protests in support of immigrant rights are urging people to stay on the job.

"Like so many others, I have been inspired by the millions of people across the country who are making their voice heard in support of comprehensive immigration reform," says Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, a sponsor of broad-based reform. But he adds: "Instead of boycotting on Monday, people should go to work or school and then join together to keep up the drumbeat and help us enact real reform."

In California, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) also urged immigrants to stay on the job. "If people don't show up for work in emergency services, or hospitals or nursing homes, it's just not going to go over very well," she told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Groups supporting the boycott say the aim is to protest the House bill and show Americans the vital role immigrants play in the economy and American life.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on immigration's economic impacts, including the divisive issue of whether immigrants take jobs Americans would fill. Some witnesses said there is a mismatch between the needs of the economy and the age, skills, and willingness to work of US-born workers. Others said 20 years of unrestrained illegal immigration had battered low-skill workers.

"In no single occupation in this country, including the worst occupations we could think of in terms of wages, are immigrants the majority," said Richard Freeman, a Harvard economist. "That means that Americans are willing to work at these jobs," although they "may not be willing to compete with an immigrant at very low wages."

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