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Marc Cooper has reported on international and domestic American politics for dozens of publications, and is Senior Fellow for Border Justice at USC Annenberg?s Institute for Justice and Journalism. He is the author of several books, including a memoir about his time as translator for Chile's...
The Great Immigration Debate: Getting Beyond Denial
A Dig led by Marc Cooper
Those allied with Tancredo (and therefore opposed to any sort of liberalized reform) won a major victory in December when the House passed a draconian anti-immigration bill sponsored by Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner. This measure, now being loudly protested by a number of Latin American foreign ministers, would reclassify all illegal aliens no longer as violators of a civil code but as criminal felons. Anyone aiding or abetting or employing them would also be committing a felony. And a new 700-mile-long wall would be built along the border—extending tenfold the current length.
No provision was made for any sort of guest-worker or normalization program, a notion that restrictionists like Tancredo and Sensenbrenner scorn as little more than an “amnesty.” The logic of the Sensenbrenner bill is that the 12 million undocumented currently living here would somehow be rounded up and deported.
No one inside the D.C. beltway honestly believes that the House measure will become law. That’s one of the major reasons, undoubtedly, why many who voted for the measure did so, though they would never admit so publicly.
Which brings us back to the Senate. Two weeks ago, the Judiciary Committee began hearing competing proposals for reform. And while the handful under consideration differ greatly among themselves, they all go beyond the enforcement-only strategy of the Sensenbrenner bill. So whatever comes out of the Senate debate—which could drag on for months—is probably (but not necessarily) going to be more sensible, less detached, more grounded than the House version.
One last-minute complication was tossed into the fray by Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). On the eve of the great debate, he cooked up his own 305-page immigration proposal that, by rule, must be considered first. To no one’s surprise, Specter’s bill angered both sides. It pissed off the restrictionists by calling for a guest worker program and angered supporters of that program because his version wouldn’t allow migrant workers to eventually become permanent citizens. After its first two weeks of crucial markups on the immigration measure, Specter’s committee seems to have made no progress.
A more profound problem is, by the time the Senate acts and its bill is reconciled with that of the House, we’ll be in the heat of the November midterm elections. The elevated partisan atmosphere bodes poorly for any realistic settlement on immigration.
On the Republican side, President Bush has been reluctant to spend any of his much-vaunted political capital on the immigration issue. If anything, he’s been sliding in the wrong direction. Last December, at the last minute, he made a passing endorsement of the Sensenbrenner bill. Now John McCain is publicly pushing Bush to do more in favor of real reform. As the congressional elections near, however, Bush may not want to rile the right-wing base by sticking his neck out on the issue.
On the other side, Democrats may be unwilling to support Bush if he does decide to come out swinging on border reform. All this leads many observers to glumly conclude that after five years of loud buildup in the immigration debate, the whole thing may fizzle—that the most likely outcome of this season’s posturing is maintenance of the status quo.
In the meantime, all of us outside of elected office have much to ponder when it comes to immigration and the way it is shaping America.
On the right, there must be some recognition that it is indeed the pushes and pulls (and mostly the latter) of a global free market economy that drives Mexican immigration to the United States rather than some dark conspiracy between American liberals and Mexican officials. As one celebrated border-based writer, Chuck Bowden, put it to me: “You’ll stop Mexican immigration into the U.S. only when you lower American wages down to the level of Vietnam.” Fantasies about fortifying the border sufficiently to dam up the human flow are only that—fantasies. Notions of deporting the millions of Mexicans and Central Americans already living and working here make about as much sense as the proposals to sweep up and expel the Italians and Irish who settled on the Eastern seaboard made a century ago.
The left must also abandon some of its illusions. Asserting effective control over national borders is always a legitimate and necessary task and one that should be supported by all. Simply denouncing border militarization and highlighting the sometimes very real abuses of the Border Patrol do not in themselves constitute a viable policy. The left must also recognize that there are legitimate complaints to be made by those living in border areas who see their schools, hospitals and sometimes even their natural environment overrun by desperate migrants who lack all legal acknowledgment. The current official policy of hotly pursuing migrants on the border and then ignoring them once they’ve been given a minimum wage job works for nobody. Immigrant workers should certainly be legalized, but in return there must be strict work site enforcement. Accepting and supporting a verification system at the point of employment must accompany supporting a channel for legal immigration. This would not only uphold the law but would also serve to protect immigrant workers from all the sorts of exploitation they currently experience.
Let’s hope that out of this season of immigration debate we begin to move away from myths and toward reality.
Journalist Marc Cooper is a Senior Fellow for Border Justice at the USC Annenberg School’s Institute for Justice and Journalism
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