Jared Nayfack was 11 years old and living in the heart of conservative Orange County, California, when he told his best friend from school that he was gay--"and my friend then came out to me," sa
Let's assume that Linda Chavez had the best of intentions when she
broke the law by harboring an illegal immigrant. More power to her for
her compassion, even if at the very same time that she was playing
hostess to her house guest, she was criticizing Zoe Baird, President
Clinton's choice for attorney general, for hiring "an illegal alien."
Let's face it, crimes involving the use of immigrant labor are
committed by many otherwise law-abiding citizens on a regular basis in
any of the large states--California, Texas, Florida and New York, for
example--where immigrant labor is a mainstay of the local economy. As
with the absurdly constructed drug war, our irrational and unenforceable
immigration laws have made law-breakers out of many otherwise upright
citizens. It is difficult to always live within the confines of a
contradiction that passes as a policy.
But beyond that, Chavez's predicament forces us to recognize that it
is both compassionate and prudent for this nation to rethink its
immigration policy. It is time to lower the obstacles to immigrants who
want to come here and to grant amnesty to the millions who have been
law-abiding citizens in this country for many years but cannot prove they
Historically, when we loosened the laws for European immigrants, it
was noncontroversial, but recent amnesties that have mostly benefited
Latin Americans and Asians have met strenuous resistence. Never mind that
all previous amnesties, no matter the prime ethnic beneficiaries, have
worked out splendidly. Indeed, our ability to absorb immigrants is the
key to the success of the US economy. A new, far-reaching amnesty is
once again needed, particularly to unify families on opposite sides of
the US-Mexico border and in Central America.
Meanwhile, there is much that can be done to slow the flow of illegal
immigration and to ensure that undocumented workers already in this
country do not undermine the prevailing wage rates. The main weapon is as
simple as it is often ignored: Enforce and strengthen the existing labor
laws. If we would only enforce the existing laws on minimum wage,
overtime pay, the requirement that employers provide workers compensation
and myriad occupational safety rules, that would ensure the end of
sweatshops in factories and the fields.
The fact is, employers largely rely on cheap labor made possible only
by a failure to improve and enforce this country's labor laws. In
California, former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, empowered the state
labor department (under the inspired leadership of Victoria Bradshaw and
Jose Millan) to enforce the laws, resulting in a dramatic decline of
exploitation of immigrant labor. The success of the California program
was so obvious that the US Labor Department, to great effect, expanded
a similar campaign to other states with high immigration.
Key to that program is establishing and enforcing a minimum wage that
makes work attractive to legally documented workers. The evidence shows
that when wages are good, the jobs are taken by documented workers. And
if the jobs do not exist, the flow of immigrants will dramatically
decline into a non-problem.
Yet the Republicans in Congress have resisted even the idea of
adjusting the minimum wage to keep up with increases in the cost of
living. Chavez was a lousy choice for secretary of Labor precisely
because she has been one of the main voices in the Republican camp
against the very idea of a minimum wage. In a 1995 Denver Post article,
she criticized the Clinton Administration's attempt to adjust the minimum
wage to account for inflationary increases in the past decade, writing:
"A 90-cent minimum wage hike over two years isn't just bad politics--it's
bad policy. The folks at the Clinton Labor Department seem to think wage
policy should follow Karl Marx's dictum 'from each according to his
abilities, to each according to his needs.'" What a bizarre thing for
her to say.
To increase the minimum wage in real dollars to where it was decades
ago under Republican Presidents is hardly a radical step. Chavez should
not have worried that it might produce an egalitarian society, since
people making less than $6 an hour still are deep in poverty and require
food stamps not to starve.
But someone so heartless as to deny the need for even meager
guarantees of subsistence for those who work should never have been
appointed secretary of a department whose purpose is to look out for the
well-being of workers. The pocket change she gave her house guest for
cleaning the toilets is no substitute for federal guarantees of decent
pay for hard work.
If this is the sort of "compassionate conservative" that George W.
Bush has in mind, it will be a grim season for the vast number of
hard-working people who, though they did not benefit from the boom of the
past decades, have helped make Bush and his key backers even richer.
Senate Democrats must save George W. Bush from his scarier self.
They must reject the appointment of John Ashcroft as attorney general, an
appointment that gives the extreme right its most cherished prize--the
power to undermine decades of progress in civil rights, free speech and
abortion rights. This is not a position for a right-wing ideologue, which
Ashcroft certainly is.
Outwardly, Bush plays the moderate. That's why he came so close to
legitimately winning the presidency. During the campaign, he kept his
distance from the GOP right wing while battling Al Gore for the support
of centrist voters. Now, obviously not at all chastened by being the
first president in more than a century to have lost the popular vote,
Bush has boldly appointed Pat Robertson's favorite senator to the most
important domestic position in his administration.
Ashcroft believes that moderate is a dirty word. "Two things you find
in the middle of the road: a moderate and a dead skunk, and I don't want
to be either one of them," he thundered during his brief primary campaign
as the far right's alternative to George W.
All one needs to know about Ashcroft is that he achieved a 100 percent voting
record from Robertson's Christian Coalition on every major vote he cast
in the US Senate, from abortion and the environment to the arts and the
economy. But it's a voting record that cost Ashcroft his Senate seat in
Clearly, the political center is where Ashcroft's former constituents
and most Americans want their government to be. The voting public's
inability to decide between two moderate candidates for President was
just one indication of its rejection of extreme politics. People expect
the Justice Department to enforce laws regarding a woman's sovereignty
over her own body, civil rights, gun control and drug treatment, among
Yet here we have Ashcroft, a man who sponsored a constitutional
amendment to ban abortion even in the case of rape and incest. How can we
expect him to protect a woman's right to a medical procedure that he
regards as murder?
As for civil rights, Ashcroft was notorious in the Senate for
systematically blackballing President Clinton's judicial and
administrative appointees solely because they possessed a strong
pro-civil rights record. Indeed, Ashcroft, in an interview with the
neosegregationist Southern Partisan magazine, even flirted with the
notion that the wrong side may have won the Civil War. Can he now be
trusted to follow through on the Justice Department's ongoing
investigation into the abysmal treatment of black voters in Florida?
Just go down the list of issues, and Ashcroft is farthest to the right
on most of them.
He's a stern opponent of laws that would prevent discrimination
against homosexuals and was particularly mean-spirited in his attacks
during the confirmation of James Hormel, who happens to be gay, as
ambassador to Luxembourg. He's a darling of the National Rifle Association. And,
at a time of growing recognition, even by the retiring drug czar, that
the drug war has failed, we face the prospect of an attorney general who,
as a senator, voted against a law to provide funding for treatment. This
measure was so noncontroversial that even Republican hard-liners like
Orrin Hatch and Strom Thurmond were sponsors.
Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who at first said he
was inclined to grant Bush his choice as attorney general, says upon
further reflection that Ashcroft must prove to his former colleagues in
the Senate that he "will vigorously pursue the civil rights laws that he
has--with good reason from his perspective--argued against for the last
Too late for such proof. Biden and his colleagues should make it clear
that there can be no bipartisan cooperation if the Bush Administration
insists on insulting the majority of American voters by putting extreme
ideologues in charge of Justice. They have an obligation to keep the
faith with voters who gave Gore a more than 500,000-vote margin of
victory in the popular vote and the Democrats a tie in the Senate.
Those voters, as well as many who voted for Bush thinking he was not
beholden to the right wing of his party, should not be betrayed in
deference to the clubbiness of the Senate. Ashcroft took the gloves off
when he blocked Clinton's appointees. It is time Senate Democrats showed
the voters they can dish it out as well as take it.
Ashcroft's supporters assure us that he will have no trouble enforcing
laws that he disagrees with. But since he profoundly disagrees with so
many, why put the man through such a test?
Senate Democrats should spare Ashcroft the anxiety that derives from
pretending to enforce laws he finds deeply immoral.
The right wing has long believed that the best defense is a good
offense. Not surprisingly then, they accuse those who dare criticize
George W. Bush's attorney general nominee, John Ashcroft, of engaging in
the "politics of personal destruction," as the President-elect's
attorney, Theodore B. Olson, put it in a L.A. Times column.
That is nonsense. The criticisms of Ashcroft have nothing to do with
his personal behavior and everything to do with his long and consistent
advocacy for an extreme right-wing political agenda. It's perfectly
reasonable to question whether an attorney general who has celebrated the
angry mobs demonstrating at abortion clinics will also defend the legal
right of those clinics to function.
Ashcroft is an avowed enemy of moderation, as he spelled out to a GOP
gathering in 1998: "There are voices in the Republican Party today who
preach pragmatism, who champion conciliation, who counsel compromise. I
stand here today to reject those deceptions. If ever there is a time to
unfurl the banner of unabashed conservatism, it is now."
To place such an ideologue in charge of the Justice Department was
Bush's payoff to the right wing, but it is at best a cynical choice that
certainly deserves to be strongly challenged in the Senate. Such
challenges were a specialty of Ashcroft, who turned the Senate into an
ideological black hole for Clinton nominees. Yet his defenders now claim
that Ashcroft should be immune to criticism because, as Olson claims,
"Presidents are customarily given great latitude" in such nominations.
How hypocritical to make that argument on behalf of a man who
specialized in savaging Clinton's choices. Ashcroft held up the
nomination of two of Clinton's picks to head the Justice Department's
Civil Rights Division. Bill Lann Lee, who has impeccable credentials, now
serves in that capacity on a temporary basis only because he was
appointed when the Senate was not in session. "I doubt seriously whether
the nomination will get out of committee," Ashcroft boasted, claiming
that Lee could not enforce the laws fairly because he had worked as a
lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is the fabled organization
that successfully sued to end segregation in the United States.
Ashcroft has been the Senate's leader in blocking many of Clinton's
judicial nominees, including Margaret Morrow, a centrist and highly
regarded leader of the bar, because he did not agree with a sentence she
wrote in a Law Review article. Morrow was finally approved, over
Ashcroft's objections, when many of his Republican colleagues came to
recognize that there simply was no basis for rejecting someone as
qualified as Morrow.
In another among many such cases, Ashcroft held up the appointment of
Missouri's Supreme Court Justice Ronnie L. White, an African-American, to
the federal bench. White was twice approved by the Senate Judiciary
Committee, but Ashcroft managed a two-year delay in the vote coming
before the full Senate, where Ashcroft managed to get White defeated on a
Ashcroft was less successful in blocking the appointment of David
Satcher to become US surgeon general because they differed on
partial-birth abortion. The Senate handily approved Satcher, but it was
over Ashcroft's strenuous objections. How ironic that Ashcroft's
supporters now ask that he be treated with kid gloves during his own
Such obstructionist tactics in the Senate came to an abrupt and
embarrassing end with Ashcroft's defeat in November by a deceased
opponent, providing as clear a case of voter rejection as one can
imagine. Obviously, voters were not swayed by the huge publicity Ashcroft
received for his vitriolic campaign demanding the impeachment of
President Clinton. Given that the charges against the President have not
been fully resolved, are we to expect that Ashcroft will dispose of them
in an objective manner?
Ashcroft's hysterical attacks on Clinton and his fervent embrace of
the right-wing social agenda led him to explore a bid for the presidency
as the ultra-right alternative to Bush. He seemed to be attacking Bush
when he told a New Hampshire television interviewer that there are "two
things you find in the middle of the road: a moderate and a dead skunk,
and I don't want to be either one of them."
Surely most Americans would insist that the man who oversees the FBI
and all federal prosecution be a genuine moderate capable of evenhanded
enforcement of the nation's laws. The voters gave the Democrats equal
strength in the Senate and defeated Bush by more than half a million
votes in the popular election. That is a mandate for Bush to appoint
moderates and for Democratic and reasonable Republican senators to hold
him to his pledge, with a thumbs down to Ashcroft.