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Showdown on Immigration | The Nation

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Showdown on Immigration

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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.

Local Republican Representative J.D. Hayworth--author of a new book calling for a border shutdown enforced by the military and the suspension of legal immigration from Mexico--was adeptly working the conservative crowd gathered at the Biltmore Hotel. Having already publicly called on a fellow Republican, President Bush, to "apologize" for calling the Minutemen, a militant anti-immigrant group, "vigilantes," Hayworth was really amping up the scare-tactic rhetoric. "We could have Watts again!" Hayworth excitedly warned the 350 "movement conservatives" brought here in late February by author and activist David Horowitz for one of his regular strategic confabs known as Restoration Weekends. If Congress legalizes the undocumented already here, Hayworth told the crowd, it could create a "permanent subclass" that could, in turn, produce "rioting like they did in France!"

One needed only to glance around the hotel ballroom in which Hayworth was speaking to perceive the yawning gulf between the tone of the current immigration debate and the quickly shifting realities of the American workplace. Even as Hayworth thundered away--invoking the title of his book Whatever It Takes as a call to stop illegal immigration--the rapt audience, including former Attorney General Ed Meese and chief Swift Boater John O'Neill, leisurely munched away on shrimp quesadillas with guacamole. Platters of stuffed empanadas, crab cakes and glasses of merlot and chardonnay were bused to and from the guests by a quietly efficient platoon of waiters with name tags reading José, Graciela, Mirta and Roberto. "Let's hope that Hayworth's deportation program doesn't kick in before the finger food is finished being served," cracked one moderate Republican.

Undocumented workers are an ever growing and ever more integral part of the American labor force. The Pew Hispanic Center reported in early March that the number of undocumented living in the United States might be as high as 12 million; that one in four agricultural jobs, one in seven construction jobs and one in six cleaning jobs is now being done by an undocumented worker; and that the illegal alien population is growing by a half-million people a year.

The good news is that after twenty years of inaction and demagogy, the US Senate is considering sweeping immigration reform. Behind that effort is a bipartisan consensus that grew out of a confluence of disparate factors: On the right, American business, desperate for low-wage and unskilled service workers, was clamoring to legalize the immigrant labor market; on the left, organized labor and liberals wanted an end to the illegal status of so many workers. And the sheer number of illegals now living in the United States--three times as many as a decade ago--demanded that something be done.

The bad news is that after arduously fighting its way to the top of the national legislative agenda--Senate majority leader Bill Frist fixed March 27 as the deadline for the Senate to come up with a bill--reform now threatens to be dead on arrival. Intransigence by the Republican right and a failure of nerve by Bush may have doomed a tenuous, years-long push to rewrite a current policy mired in denial and hypocrisy. "We may be on the verge of seeing the Republicans do to immigration what Hillary Clinton did to healthcare in the 1990s," said a prominent immigration attorney. "Set it back several decades."

Ironically, it was the same President Bush, with one eye on the growing Latino vote and the other on his big-business backers, who set the stage for reform two years ago when he called for the massive guest-worker program. Many on the Democratic left and some immigrant advocacy groups were suspicious of any such plan, seeing it as similar to the bracero schemes of the 1950s. But those on the right were much more adept. They read right through Bush's proposal--a program that, in the end, would grant some sort of legal residence to the millions of undocumented already living here--and they wanted no part of it.

Initially, the supporters of reform appeared to have a good chance at success. An odd-fellows coalition stretching from probusiness Republicans to liberal Democrats agreed on the broad outlines of legislation, framed in the so-called McCain-Kennedy bill, that would toughen border controls but also create a legal way for Mexican workers to come to the United States and, most important, provide for eventual legalization of the millions already here. Representative Raúl Grijalva, a liberal Tucson Democrat who after initially worrying about institutionalizing the same sort of second-class status that his parents, themselves braceros, had suffered, became one of the McCain-Kennedy bill's major supporters. "I have come full circle on guest worker," Grijalva says. "We won sufficient guarantees of worker rights to make it acceptable." While the AFL-CIO recently withdrew its support for the idea, saying it feared the "creation of an undemocratic, two-tiered society," one of the country's biggest unions, the Service Employees International, which has been focusing on organizing immigrant workers, supports the program, in part because Grijalva and other progressive legislators have hammered out what they argue are acceptable and realistic compromises.

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