Showdown on Immigration

Showdown on Immigration

After twenty years of inaction, the US Senate is considering sweeping immigration reform. But a push for quick action and the November elections may thwart the current bipartisan consensus.



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.

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.

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?”

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.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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