Felony threat rouses immigrants

Stiff penalty in a House bill spurred hundreds of thousands to march in cities around the nation.

As Amilear Aleman waited 45 minutes in a sea of white T-shirts to ride the subway to Monday's immigration rally at the Mall, he had one word in mind: felony.

That's the penalty a House bill assigns to those who are in the United States illegally. And it's what triggered Mr. Aleman - and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators nationwide - to protest.

"A felony is when you hurt someone or kill them," he says. "It's not fair to apply it to people just working to make a living for their families."

Aleman isn't worried about his own legal status. As a refugee from El Salvador, he won the right to work in the US legally in 1988, when getting citizenship was easier. Now, as a restaurant manager in Gaithersburg, Md., he sends $300 a month back home to help his father run the family farm. "It is a crime if you cross the border illegally, but it's not the same thing as killing somebody," he adds.

Even before H.R. 4437 came to a vote on the floor of the House last December - launching the biggest wave of protests since the Vietnam War era - House Republican leaders knew they had gone too far. Its main sponsor, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, even introduced an amendment to reduce the penalty for being in the country without documentation from being a felony to a misdemeanor. "When we reflected on it, we decided that a felony was too harsh," he said last week.

But nearly all Democrats voted to keep the felony penalty intact last December - a bid to highlight a bill they say is mean-spirited.

Currently, those who enter the US illegally can be charged with a federal criminal misdemeanor and be sentenced to six months in prison. But simply being in the country without proper documentation is not a criminal offense. At the request of the Bush administration, the bill punishes those who overstay their visas at the same level as those who climb over a fence or tunnel under a border: up to a year in jail.

However, after the bill passed committee, the administration asked that the penalty for these crimes be lowered to six months, because prosecution as a felony would require a grand jury indictment, a trial before a district court judge, a jury trial, and an attorney at public expense. As such, the Justice Department felt the penalties would rarely be enforced.

"People want to whip up passion and demagogue the bill. We haven't had too much success trying to explain [the facts]," says Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for Chairman Sensenbrenner. Indeed, Senate GOP leaders struggled to distance themselves from the House position. Repeatedly, in two weeks of tough debate, Republicans insisted that nothing in their plans would make either illegal entry or illegal presence a felony.

"The Senate has spoken with one voice: We need comprehensive reform and not one [proposal] has a 'felony' in there," said Senate majority leader Bill Frist last week.

But that message didn't make it to the Mall, where the "felony" theme figured in many speeches and posters. It's the first point many make when asked why they have come.

Mario, who overstayed a tourist visa, carries a handmade sign that reads "We're not a threat or criminals." He says he thought hard about what to put on his sign. "I heard on the radio that this is what people thought of us," he says.

Gonzalo Viscarra, who came to the US from Bolivia and overstayed his visa, worked three jobs a day before he attained legal status through marriage. "I worked hard to feed my family. Does that make me a criminal?" he asks.

"All these illegal people build houses for all the American people, get up at 3 a.m. and make their breakfasts, go up on the roof on a 100 degree day," he adds. "Today we work, but tomorrow we vote."

If and when he votes, he plans to vote for Democrats, he says, because Republicans just passed "the worst law that has ever been."

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