Showdown on Immigration
Flake is far from alone in his sentiments. Meeting in late February, the Western Governors Association, representing eighteen states, unanimously adopted a policy resolution calling on Congress to pass comprehensive reform, including a guest-worker program. "We believe that some of the rhetoric coming out of our nation's capital vis-à-vis illegal immigration is unfounded and unwise, and what we really need is a very comprehensive approach to this issue," Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano told the press. Napolitano hasn't always been so forthright in opposing border-generated demagogy. Highlighting the Democrats' own willingness to play on both sides of the issue, last year Napolitano joined New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson in declaring their respective border zones "disaster areas." And in early March Napolitano pandered further to the restrictionists when she signed an executive order sending additional National Guard units to the border to carry out what are described as "support" missions for the Border Patrol.
Meanwhile, on the eve of Ash Wednesday, the powerful Los Angeles-based Cardinal Roger Mahoney said he was calling on all 288 parishes in his archdiocese to pray for humane immigration reform. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as the country's two major labor federations have also stepped up lobbying efforts for legalization of the undocumented.
But how much any of this will influence the Senate debate is unknown. After the Judiciary Committee's first day of debate on March 2, chairman Arlen Specter said glumly: "I have seen virtually no agreement on anything.... Emotions are at an all-time high." What Specter didn't mention was his own role in confusing matters. On the eve of the debate he introduced a measure that managed to tick off everybody. Specter's proposal included a guest-worker program--which the restrictionists abhor--but one that, unlike the McCain-Kennedy proposal, would not allow eventual permanent residence for migrant workers.
No one is willing to guess what will come out of the Senate process, no less out of any conference measure that would have to bridge the gap between the Senate and the draconian Sensenbrenner bill, already approved by the House. And if the process drags on closer to the November elections, chances for significant reform will dim considerably. Republicans, and especially the President, will be reluctant to further aggravate their internal party divisions. And even if Bush regains his confidence in pushing for reform, will Democrats--with their eyes now set on winning in November--really be ready to line up behind him?
For now, some of the most ardent advocates of comprehensive reform, like Representative Grijalva, find themselves in a much more defensive posture than only a year ago. Instead of pondering how much they are going to move forward, they're hoping they won't be pushed back. Under current circumstances, maybe the best thing that can happen is nothing; maybe the most important thing is to stave off Republicans from whipping up immigrant bashing as an electoral strategy this fall. "It's really important that strategy doesn't get traction on the right," Grijalva says. "If we can stabilize the issue, then maybe we can make it more manageable for 2008. Or maybe the best we can hope for is for the Senate to break it up piecemeal and slowly send it over to us. In the meantime, no getting around it, the elephant in the room is, What are we going to do with the 11 million people here and already growing?"
Grijalva says he feels that he and his allies went at least halfway to meet pro-reform Republicans, and he earnestly hoped Bush would have the moxie to stare down the right fringe of the GOP and give the reformers some political cover. But things haven't worked out that way. Says Grijalva, "This quietness from Bush is the most disappointing thing."