Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Felony Threat Rouses Immigrants ; Stiff Penalty in a House Bill Spurred Hundreds of Thousands to March in Cities around the Nation

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Felony Threat Rouses Immigrants ; Stiff Penalty in a House Bill Spurred Hundreds of Thousands to March in Cities around the Nation

Article excerpt

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. …

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