Tombstone, Arizona

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.

Every border clampdown since President Clinton’s 1994 Operation Gatekeeper has failed to stanch the human traffic, instead merely redirecting it into ever more perilous and remote routes. “When Gatekeeper was sold to us, the Clinton Administration said that we would need the lockdown on the border because in the short term NAFTA might generate a hump in immigration,” says Claudia Smith, border project director of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement. “But they said that in the mid- and long term NAFTA would reduce the need for immigration. Yet here we are, ten years later, and none of those promises have been borne out. Here we are, back to square one, only 3,000 deaths and $10 billion later. We’re back to square one.”

The total failure of border and immigration policy turns undeniably stark on a recent Saturday-morning visit to the dusty Mexican town of Altar, a kidney-jarring drive about two hours south of the Arizona border. Once an anonymous bus stop in the Sonoran Desert, Altar is now a major staging point for illegal immigration. The town’s few streets are lined with booths and stalls set up by yet other migrants, mostly from Oaxaca, selling everything needed to make the crossing: black jackets, black gloves, sturdy jeans, running shoes, backpacks, wool sweaters, black ski masks, one-gallon plastic jugs of water, small plastic bags of combs, toothbrushes, nail clippers, aspirin and lip balm, even $3 plastic trash bags cynically hawked as effective foilers of the Border Patrol heat sensors that riddle the US side of the line. Hundreds of mostly young men from all over Mexico and points farther south, but also some families with small children, sit or stand patiently in the town square waiting to make contact with their “pollero” or “coyote,” who will smuggle them up the one dirt road and across the border. Thanks to the ongoing crackdown, the coyotes’ asking price has skyrocketed to $1,200 a head or more, but no one can detect any decline in the flow of about 1,800 people a day just through this one town.

Along with me on the visit to Altar is Steve Laffey, the Republican Mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island, a city of 80,000, which is experiencing its own influx of undocumented immigrants. Laffey seems emotionally struck by the sordid human spectacle. On our way back to Arizona he laments, “If you had a hundred US senators come down here and spend only a day in one of the flophouses or a morning talking to these people, you’d have this immigration issue solved in less than a week. But it isn’t gonna happen. Not yet.” Laffey’s at least half right: The US Senate is not about to convene in a Mexican border town. But something might happen anyway.

After a barrage of anti-immigration bills fired off earlier in this legislative season, Senators McCain and Kennedy introduced in mid-May their much-awaited immigration overhaul proposal–the first step toward comprehensive and bipartisan reform. There are other, more restrictionist proposals also in formation, including from Texas Republican John Cornyn. President Bush, for his part, while still paying lip service to reform, has yet to offer any specifics. In that vacuum, the pro-immigrant forces have rallied to McCain-Kennedy. “This measure would replace the wink-wink, nudge-nudge hypocritical system we have now with a common-sense law that can be enforced to the letter,” says Jacoby from the center-right. “It’s the basic bar we need,” says Medina from the labor left.

McCain-Kennedy would provide for the legalization of millions of undocumented workers already living in the United States with renewable visas after they’ve paid $2,000 in fines for illegal residency; allow new immigrants to come in with work permits and achieve eventual residency; and as a trade-off impose tougher enforcement at the border and in the workplace. Reform advocates are buoyed not only by polls showing that about two-thirds of Americans would support such measures but also by the political clout of the business lobby that has solidly lined up behind this bill. “The only way we can grow the workforce we need is through immigration,” says John Gay, a vice president of the International Franchise Association and co-chair of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, an organization that includes the US Chamber of Commerce and nearly three dozen other national business groups. This year has seen pleas, from labor-short growers in the Southwest to crab processors in Maryland, for a loosening of immigration restrictions (in November the Arizona vegetable growers asked the Border Patrol to back off detention of undocumented workers). “We want two things,” says Gay, “a system by which we can hire workers for jobs that Americans don’t want and a mechanism by which the 9-10-12 million undocumented can get some form of legalization.”

“Yes,” he says before I can ask. “That second point is the A-word, amnesty. There are two sides to this problem: people coming here, and people already here. Can’t solve one problem without the other.”

That amnesty, until recently the private reserve of the progressive left, has now been adopted by corporate America provides insight into how labor and business have converged on this issue. It’s also why the toughest fight around McCain-Kennedy is going to be within the political right. Jacoby and others predict that if Bush pushes hard enough on his right flank, McCain-Kennedy could pass the Senate with a comfortable margin, while Representative Raul Grijalva, a liberal Arizona Democrat, calls himself “guardedly optimistic” about prospects for major reform in the House, where a McCain-Kennedy companion bill was introduced. Grijalva worries about the doggedly anti-immigration stance of the House leadership and the “inordinate” influence of Tancredo’s restrictionist caucus.

Just how tough the fight in both houses could be is indicated by the recent defeat in the Senate of Senator Larry Craig’s AgJobs bill, which would have legalized a half-million farmworkers, and passage in the House of Representative James Sensenbrenner’s draconian “REAL ID” provisions after a deal worked out by the Democratic and Republican Congressional leadership. These provisions make it harder for states to grant driver’s licenses to the undocumented and tighten US asylum criteria. Grijalva says only the President has the clout to bring his right flank to heel and pave the way for acceptable compromise. “Bush is simply going to have to spend some of that political capital he’s been talking about to get this through,” he says. The close-the-borders right is already ginning up a campaign against McCain-Kennedy, calling it a general amnesty and a “pay to stay” scheme. And even if the bill makes it in some form through both houses and winds up in conference, there’s a danger that it will be gutted into an empty bracero program, changing very little. “The real political fight,” says Grijalva, “will be on the exact details of the two components: guest worker and the path to legalization.”

For immigration advocates to get an acceptable win, they’ll need what Austin-based immigration attorney and editor of Bender’s Immigration Bulletin Dan Kowalski calls a perfect storm: a convergence of “presidential leadership willing to stand up to the restrictionist right, Congressional compromise demonstrating a preference for action over posturing and an educated public willing to accept a more rational immigration system as the price for abolishing what is, in effect, a national plantation system with 10 million humans acting as our less-than-equal servants.” And some who know the Republican Party best say it’s a tough call whether or not Bush will actually risk any political investment. So far he’s talked a good game but has done nothing. “On the one hand, Bush is much more progressive on this issue than many Republican Congressmen,” says veteran California GOP strategist Allen Hoffenblum. “On the other hand, while Republican voters are very anti-immigrant–you know, with that ‘build a fence’ thinking–Bush has been so depleted by the Social Security fight that he has little political capital left to spend. He might decide to just stall out on the whole issue.”

Finally, there are back-room calculations by both parties as to who will bite off the strategic chunk of the Latino vote in crucial electoral states like Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. The GOP’s share of the Arizona Latino vote climbed to an all-time high of more than 40 percent in last November’s presidential election. Pissing off a few Minuteman types might be a small price to pay to have the President become the champion of historic immigration liberalization and the elected official most responsible for delivering the Latino vote to the GOP.

The danger is that the longer meaningful federal action lags, the more the populist right, the Minuteman-style groups and the Congressional Tancredos will be energized into action. Anti-immigration drives are now under way in about a dozen states–not just in the Southwest but also in Washington, Colorado, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Utah and even far-away liberal Massachusetts. Much of this activity was spurred by passage last November of Proposition 200 in Arizona, the state that experiences the greatest impact from illegal immigration. Passed with a 56 percent majority, the law requires that legal residency be demonstrated before certain state public services are offered. “We are at a boiling point now,” says Phoenix-based political consultant Mario Diaz, a former strategist for Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano. “When 47 percent of Latinos vote for Prop 200, you know there is a message being sent to the federal government.”

While Arizona’s Democratic attorney general interpreted the law in a vary narrow way, rendering its effects minimal, Arizona’s anti-immigration crusaders are hardly deterred; they believe they are surfing the crest of a breaking national political wave. When I met with Prop 200’s co-author State Representative Russell Pearce in his Phoenix office, he was downright elated. A former chief deputy to the Maricopa County sheriff and a former Republican-appointed head of the state motor vehicle agency (where he outlawed licenses to the undocumented), Pearce is churning out restrictionist proposals in industrial-sized doses. The day we met, two of his bills had just been considered by the Arizona Senate. One allows judges to refuse bond on certain undocumented felons; the other further tightens driver’s license regulations (the first one was approved; the second one failed). Other measures that Pearce supports would outlaw “day worker” facilities in Arizona, strengthen Prop 200 and empower local police to make arrests on the basis of immigration status. “What’s our alternative?” he asked in an avuncular style. “Watch while our neighborhoods burn and get destroyed? And then there’s assimilation. That’s what binds us together as a people. But now many, many of the people who come here have no intention of assimilating. They come here and they demand: They demand services in their languages, demand that we honor their culture, and that breeds a culture of war.” And like Tom Tancredo, at the top of State Senator Pearce’s enemies list are fellow Republicans, like McCain and Arizona Representative Jim Kolbe, who support immigration liberalization. “They’re on the other side!” he exclaimed. “It’s absolutely outrageous. A malfeasance of their office. Shame on them!”

While Pearce sees “momentum, lots of momentum” for his immigrant-crackdown message, other evidence indicates the restrictionist cause isn’t quite as compelling at the grassroots. In spite of extraordinary media hype, including millions of dollars in free publicity doled out on a daily basis on CNN as Lou Dobbs aggressively championed its cause, the Minuteman Project was an unmitigated flop. Though its organizers predicted that “potentially thousands” would attend its kickoff rallies, I counted no more than 135 participants in Tombstone–a lesser number than the journalists on hand. When the project shut down a month later, organizers claimed that 900 volunteers had participated in patrolling the border, but in reality the Minuteman patrols–mostly consisting of people camped out in the desert with tents and lawn chairs–never involved more than a few dozen people at a time.

Diaz, the political strategist, suggests that while frustration over chaos at the border runs high, people can be persuaded to accept sensible solutions–provided that politicians take the risk to be persuasive. “People who voted for Prop 200 are not at all necessarily racist,” he says. “Some are. But some are concerned about the welfare of the immigrants, others are worried about economic issues. Others are worried about lack of enforcement and loss of control.” But, he warns, “if we don’t hear some serious, serious discussion of this, then immigration reform will remain dead.”

Not trusting the Republicans and the White House to lead the fight, and arguing that Democrats are the natural champions of immigration reform, he says that it’s “the responsibility of Democrats more than anyone else to take this on as a central issue: Convene town hall meetings across the Southwest and undertake a public education program that makes people understand that no matter what the policy, people from Mexico and Latin America are going to keep coming here.” He adds, “Until there is real leadership on this, I’m afraid little will actually change.”