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Showdown on Immigration | The Nation

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Showdown on Immigration

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Some believe meaningful reform is still imminent. "I smell victory in the air," Senator Ted Kennedy yelled out jubilantly to a recent rally of immigrant hotel workers in Washington, DC. But Kennedy's optimism still prevails among only a few. The entire tenor of the immigration debate has radically shifted in the past year--and all in the wrong direction. Infuriated by the prospect of what it called an "amnesty," the anti-immigrant right seized the political initiative in the escalating legislative fight. The President, frightened by the populist, Minutemen-like rebellion on his right flank and worried about splitting his party in an election year, has retreated, thereby opening up even more political space for the xenophobic fringe.

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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.

The Senate debate on immigration pits Republicans against Republicans--the Wall Street faction against Main Street, reformers against restrictionists. And in the House the restrictionists are surging. Representative Hayworth's clarion call at the Phoenix Restoration Weekend to close the borders was only the opening act for the undisputed hero of the nativist Republican right, Representative Tom Tancredo. A Colorado backbencher who rode the anti-immigrant wave to national prominence, Tancredo brought loud cheers from the conservative group as he ripped directly into any notion of liberalized immigration. "Yes, many who come across the border are workers. But among them are people coming to kill me and you and your children," he said.

Tancredo heads the ill-named House Immigration Reform Caucus, now about ninety members, which has assumed enormous clout in blocking reform. With the support of Tancredo's caucus last December, Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner Jr. pushed through a House measure intended to torpedo any liberalization. Even if the Senate passes a reform bill, it would have to reconcile it with Sensenbrenner's. And that might be impossible.

The Sensenbrenner bill reclassifies all illegal aliens as felons and radically increases penalties against anyone who aids, hires or counsels them. The bill would also require a new, 700-mile wall along the border, which stretches for 2,000 miles. Conspicuously absent from the House measure is any guest-worker program or mechanism to legalize those already here. And Tancredo is happy to take full credit for the bill. "The Wall Street Journal calls this the Tancredo Wall," he said with a smile. "Hey, it's got a great ring to it. The Journal says I want to turn America into a gated community. I say, You bet!"

There was plenty of negative reaction to Tancredo's rant from his fellow Republicans. Speaking the next day, Missouri Lieutenant Governor Pete Kinder told the conservative crowd that Tancredo's position could do to the national GOP what Pete Wilson did to the California branch of the party when he surfed the last anti-immigrant wave of the mid-1990s: decimate it. "I'm warning you," Kinder told his Republican audience, "that the tone is going to turn a lot of people off."

The most eloquent plea for Republicans to reject Tancredoism came from Arizona Representative Jeff Flake. The solidly conservative Flake warned his fellow Republicans to "be honest" and face the realities of the global marketplace. "As Republicans we need to recognize that we need foreign workers. That we need them now and that we're going to need them in the future," he said. "We're either gonna have them here legally or illegally. We have to make it possible for them to get here legally."

It would be suicidal, Flake said, for GOP candidates to demagogue the issue for short-term gain. "You can run on rational immigration policy. For those who just say seal the border, I ask, Are you going to move something as big as Ohio across the border?" he said, referring to the millions of undocumented people living in America. "Are we going to pretend they don't exist?"

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