High Noon on the Border
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."