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.”