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High Noon on the Border | The Nation

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High Noon on the Border

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Tombstone, Arizona

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

It's April Fools' Day and Congressman Tom Tancredo, dressed in jeans, an open-necked khaki shirt and a camouflage US Border Patrol cap, sparks a prolonged standing ovation from the hundred or so assembled volunteers of the Minuteman Project as they kick off their monthlong campaign to close down the Arizona-Mexico border. His presence here, at what is most definitely a fringe political event involving armed citizen patrols, is validation--at least in the minds of the project organizers--that their seal-the-borders message is finally resonating in Washington. The avenging angel of America's anti-immigrant movement, Tancredo leads seventy mostly back-bench, restrictionist House members in the Immigration Reform Caucus.

The short, stocky Congressman grips the podium in this town's high-ceilinged former courthouse and congratulates the Minutemen, saying, "You are not vigilantes; you are heroes, every single one of you." He gets another thunderous ovation toward the end of his short speech when he asks the agitated audience, referring to upcoming immigration and border-reform legislation: "You know how I know we are winning? You know because I'm no longer the only one who stands up on this issue.... In Congress, I can't promise you what's going to happen. But I can promise you this much: There's gonna be one hell of a fight." And in case anyone's wondering who it is that Tancredo and his supporters plan on fighting, fellow speaker Bay Buchanan, Pat's sister, spells it out: "Our message to Mr. Bush is that you have failed us! You have failed our children, Mr. Bush, because you allow drugs and criminals across the border. Mr. President, you have failed America."

It shouldn't be surprising that George W. Bush, rather than liberal Democrats, should be the target of so much cranked-up ire from the nativist right. For the first time since 9/11, comprehensive immigration reform is back at the top of the national political agenda. It was put there last year largely by the President, wittingly or otherwise, when he publicly called for a large-scale guest-worker program. That call came at a point when both political parties were eyeing the burgeoning Latino population, especially in the Southwestern swing states, and had been for some time. In 2001 Bush, who had already made significant inroads with Latinos and was trying to stretch that advantage, proposed a vast immigration deal with Mexico. And just three months before September 11, Mexico's foreign minister at the time, Jorge Castañeda, told US reporters he was confident that the "whole enchilada" was about to be agreed upon--i.e., a sweeping reform that would legalize millions of undocumented workers already in America as well as those coming in the future.

But the enchilada, the chips and the salsa were all blown to the winds by the terrorist attacks and the new focus on security.

Now, four years later, the issue has finally come full circle, but it no longer breaks cleanly along right-left, conservative-liberal lines. Traditionally the business lobby and its Republican allies have wanted only a bracero-like guest-worker program, while Democrats, labor and liberals have emphasized legalization, if not amnesty, for the undocumented. Advocates on both sides say they now realize they can't get one without the other and have ceded ground to support comprehensive and liberalized immigration reform. The consensus for sweeping reform ranges from immigrants rights' groups, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches and organized labor to farmers, growers and fast-food franchisers on up to the US Chamber of Commerce. So counterintuitive is the reform coalition in its composition that it includes the conservative Manhattan Institute's Tamar Jacoby calling SEIU vice president Eliseo Medina "one of the smartest men on the planet." Medina, representing the most militant union in America, in turn lauds President Bush for "doing a tremendous job" of putting the immigration issue on the table. Conservative Idaho Senator Larry Craig and the American Farm Bureau link hands with Ted Kennedy and the AFL-CIO. And Senator John McCain allies with Kennedy to sponsor legislation that has been enthusiastically endorsed by both corporate and working America. "I think we now have the best shot at comprehensive reform since before 9/11," says Medina, who strongly supports the McCain-Kennedy initiative. "It's now part of the national debate, and conditions are such we now might actually get something done."

Those "conditions," as Medina puts it, include a widening recognition across ideological lines that the border and immigration policy of the past decade has utterly failed. Even with billions in additional Homeland Security funding, the fielding of hundreds of additional agents and the deployment of choppers, unmanned drones and other high-tech hardware, the chaotic situation on the Southern border remains unchanged. Apprehensions of illegal crossers continue to run at about a million a year, while an equal number or more make it across and an average of about 350 perish in the attempt. Meanwhile, as many as 11 million undocumented workers and their families continue to live in the shadows, even though they are productive and responsible members of society.

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