By Marc Cooper
This Thursday (March 16), mostly under the media radar, the U.S. Senate inched closer to what some observers call a turning point in long-delayed comprehensive immigration reform.
Just when it looked as if all efforts were on the verge of collapse, the Senate Judiciary Committee apparently agreed on proposals that would offer the 12 million undocumented workers and their families living in the U.S. the possibility of earning permanent residence and citizenship.
Senators present at Thursday’s meeting have told the media that there is now a voting majority to back the so-called McCain-Kennedy measures, which are, without question, the most enlightened of all pending immigration proposals.
Republicans have been bitterly divided over this issue and until Thursday’s meeting it appeared that the close-the-border “restrictionists” had the upper hand.
They still might. The Senate Judiciary Committee will not formally vote on Thursday’s agreement until after a week-long recess. And, if passed, it will then come before the full Senate for approval. If the measures get that far they still would have to be reconciled with a draconian bill last December by the House that omits all guest worker and legalization plans.
Further complicating matters, Republican Sen. Bill Frist proposed a completely new bill on Thursday, March 16, that does not include a “guest worker” provision—which many conservatives consider amnesty for undocumented workers. This late entry by Frist caught both Democrats and Republicans by surprise, and although it is likely to fall by the wayside, it will nevertheless probably remain the fallback position for the more conservative members of Congress when the debate reaches the full floor.
However, assuming some version of the McCain-Kennedy bill survives both houses, the most important aspect of the Judiciary Committee’s apparent agreement is that it, at least, acknowledges the existence of this hidden and growing immigrant workforce and the need to legalize it.
Here’s my report, filed a few days ago, on the full background to this debate:
Police in Southern California’s Orange County recently raided a day labor center and hauled off a number of immigrant workers in order to have their legal status checked. In Texas, sheriffs are banding together to guard the U.S.-Mexico border, doing an end run around the Border Patrol.
In Arizona, the Democratic governor is dispatching more National Guard units to the state’s southern border to offer “support” to the Border Patrol. In Washington, D.C., the Republican-controlled House has passed a draconian measure calling for the construction of a 700-mile, triple-wall fence at the border. Meanwhile, in Chicago, a hastily organized pro-immigrant rally burgeoned into a street demonstration of 100,000 or more.
Indeed, elbowing aside more high-profile issues such as the war in Iraq, the NSA spying scandal and the Abramoff corruption swamp, illegal immigration and proposed comprehensive immigration reform have finally floated to the top of the national legislative agenda.
Without much public notice, for the first time in 20 years the U.S. Senate this month is finally debating legislation that could radically change the ways our country deals with immigrants and enforces the laws on the border for decades to come. It’s a moment that reform advocates—from big business to big labor, from church groups to civil liberties organizations—have long been been fighting for. The Senate leadership has given the Judiciary Committee until March 27 to present a bill to be voted on by the whole body. Once approved, that measure would be reconciled with the House measure passed last December and move to the president’s desk for his signature.
But just as the Senate finally begins its historic considerations, there’s a sense of foreboding creeping in among reform advocates. As the debate heats ups it seems permeated and distorted by a number of prevailing myths that threaten to derail any forward and much-need movement.
START OF ORIGINAL REPORT
Just as the real history of the war in Vietnam remains shrouded in layers of self-deceptive mythology and historical denial, so does the situation along our border, leaving the American population unprepared to understand the whys and wherefores of what is currently the greatest wave of immigration in our history.
You know the drill when it comes to Vietnam. We lost that war, we’re told, because we fought with one hand behind our back. No matter, it seems, that more than 2 million U.S. troops were cycled through the Indo-Chinese jungles, that entire forests were defoliated, that we dropped more bombs than all sides combined in World War II and that more than 3 million died in the conflict. We just didn’t fight hard enough.
Now we hear the same sort of “logic” when it comes to our border/immigration policy. We’re just too soft, we’re told. We don’t enforce the law. Every day on CNN, program host Lou Dobbs sets the national tone by ranting against our “broken borders.” As he wrote in The Arizona Republic:
In the United States, an obscene alliance of corporate supremacists, desperate labor unions, certain ethnocentric Latino activist organizations and a majority of our elected officials in Washington works diligently to keep our borders open, wages suppressed and the American people all but helpless to resist the crushing financial and economic burden created by the millions of illegal aliens who crash our borders each year.
But let’s calmly look at some very revealing statistics that tell us a very different story. Between 1986 and 2002 the number of Border Patrol officers tripled and the number of hours they spent patrolling the border increased by a factor of eight. In the past handful of years, billions have been spent fortifying the border with heat- and motion-detection sensors, 10-foot walls, stadium-strength lighting, infrared scopes, remote-controlled surveillance cameras, the IDENT biometric scanning system, a fleet of Blackhawk helicopters and even aerial drones. Billions more are currently being earmarked to further fortify the border and keep out illegal aliens. Indeed, there are few places in America that are as militarized as the U.S.-Mexican border.
Now to a second set of statistics. This ongoing buildup along the border has, by any honest measure, completely failed. There is no evidence whatsoever—not even from official U.S. government sources—that suggests any stemming of the immigrant flow by the border enforcement buildup.
In 1992, about 1.2 million “deportable aliens” were “apprehended” along the southwestern border by the Border Patrol, according to the official statistics published by the Department of Homeland Security. A dozen years and billions of dollars later, in 2004 a virtually identical number of illegal aliens were nabbed along the same border. In the intervening years, the number fluctuated from about 1.6 million to just under a million.
In the simplest of terms, a strategy of enforcement-only measures has made no perceivable dent in the human flow across the border. And there is, therefore, no reason to believe that further measures of fortification are going to work any better.
Indeed, the only practical effect produced by the border crackdown—initiated in 1994 by the Clinton administration—has been to radically increase the number of people who die while trying to cross the border. As both the Clinton and Bush administrations continued with a policy of effectively blockading the traditional urban crossing points on the border, the stream of migrants was funneled into the perilous desert of central Arizona. In 1995, 61 people died in trying to get across the border. By the late 1990s, the annual figure was running at over 400 a year. Last year the death toll hit nearly 500.
The U.S.-Mexican border has been “10 times deadlier to Mexican immigrants in the last 10 years than was the whole 28-year history of the Berlin Wall to East Germans,” Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego, told me. Over the history of the Berlin Wall, 287 people perished while trying to cross it. Since the Clinton administration implemented the current U.S. border strategy, as many as 3,500 Mexicans have died while trying to make the crossing.
“It has been a strategy of prevention through deterrence,” said Cornelius. He said that the U.S. government believed that if the four traditional urban hot spots for illegal crossings could be barricaded, as they were, “the mountains and deserts would do the rest.” But prevention through deterrence turned into would-be deterrence by death.
“Only the route of immigration changes, but nothing else,” Father Rene Castaneda, the priest in the border crossing hot-spot town of Altar told me last year. “It’s just like pushing a fully inflated basketball underwater. You can only hold it down so long and then the pressure builds up and it pops up and bursts through somewhere else. If you don’t do anything to change the root causes, the problem doesn’t change.”
The root cause of the immigration surge, of course, has nothing to do with a broken U.S. border but everything to do with a ruined Mexican economy. The wage differential between the U.S. and Mexico is about 11 to 1. Some studies suggest that in the agricultural sector there’s a 20-to-1 differential. The passage of the 1994 NAFTA agreement further depressed Mexican rural wages and further accelerated the immigration wave. No one knows the exact figure, but something like 15 million Mexicans have emigrated to the U.S. in the last 20 years. An equal number are expected over the next two decades.
An estimated record 12 million undocumented —or illegal aliens if you prefer—now reside in the United States, more than double the number of a decade ago. Undocumented Mexican workers, once found primarily in the fields of the Southwest, now occupy the front lines of the service labor market in almost every state of the union. This is one factor, surely, behind the renewed immigration debate. Even for those in denial, it’s getting hard to ignore the facts on the ground.
When President Bush took office in 2001 he made relations with Mexico and a possible immigration accord two of his top priorities. In the summer of 2001, Mexico’s then-Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda told me and other reporters he was confident that he could secure the “whole enchilada,” a sweeping agreement that would “normalize” the illegals living here while simultaneously opening up a channel for significant legal migration from Mexico. The irony of history is that Castaneda gave his most confident interview on Sept. 10, 2001—the day before the fateful Al Qaeda attack on American soil. The optimism surrounding a historic U.S.-Mexican agreement on immigration was among the first victims consumed in the conflagration at Ground Zero.
Not until January 2004 did the national debate on immigration restart, when Bush, in that year’s State of the Union address, pushed hard for a new guest-worker program. The president took up the mantle of, at least limited, immigration reform for a number of converging reasons:
- The White House and some GOP strategists were looking to capture an ever-larger piece of the burgeoning national Latino electorate.
- The Big Business benefactors of the GOP were increasingly pushing for measures that would stabilize and legalize the pool of cheap immigrant labor that was becoming, by the day, an ever more important component of the domestic workforce.
- There was a growing public perception in the wake of 9/11 that the federal government had lost control of the border and needed to reassert itself.
By the time Bush launched his call, the political map of immigration reform in America had radically shifted. No longer was this a neat left/right, liberal/conservative, close-the-border/open-it-up debate. As I wrote last year in The Nation magazine:
Traditionally the business lobby and its Republican allies have wanted only a bracero-like guest-worker program, while Democrats, labor and liberals have emphasized legalization, if not amnesty, for the undocumented. Advocates on both sides say they now realize they can’t get one without the other and have ceded ground to support comprehensive and liberalized immigration reform. The consensus for sweeping reform ranges from immigrants’ rights groups, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches and organized labor to farmers, growers and fast-food franchisers on up to the US Chamber of Commerce. So counterintuitive is the reform coalition in its composition that it includes the conservative Manhattan Institute’s Tamar Jacoby calling SEIU vice president Eliseo Medina “one of the smartest men on the planet.” Medina, representing the most militant union in America, in turn lauds President Bush for “doing a tremendous job” of putting the immigration issue on the table. Conservative Idaho Senator Larry Craig and the American Farm Bureau link hands with Ted Kennedy and the AFL-CIO. And Senator John McCain allies with Kennedy to sponsor legislation that has been enthusiastically endorsed by both corporate and working America. “I think we now have the best shot at comprehensive reform since before 9/11,” says Medina, who strongly supports the McCain-Kennedy initiative. “It’s now part of the national debate, and conditions are such we now might actually get something done.”
The sort of reform proposed by this odd-fellow coalition would, certainly, endorse tighter border controls but would go far beyond mere policing measures. A mechanism would be established that would allow employers to hire foreign workers under a new guest-visa program. And, most important, this sort of comprehensive reform would allow the millions of undocumented already here to legalize themselves by coming out of the shadows, paying a fine and getting their papers. The McCain-Kennedy measure would also create a new employment eligibility verification system that would give real teeth to work site enforcement, currently the orphan of immigration-related policing.
Unfortunately, Bush’s call for reform generated the strongest response from his right-wing, nativist flank. An unofficial coalition of “restrictionists”—of shut-the-border advocates—sprang to life and has since clearly seized the initiative. A small group of sometimes armed “Minutemen” pulled off a sizable media stunt by rushing down to “patrol” the border. In Congress, little-known Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo has grown his “Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus” into a powerful House machine that is obstructing forward movement on reform. The result has been a low-intensity civil war within the Republican Party. The San Jose Mercury News reports on just such a skirmish at a recent gathering of conservatives:
“No matter how good [it is] for the restaurant industry, the ski resorts, the U.S. Chamber and Tyson Foods, cheap labor is cheap only for the employer, not for the taxpayer,” U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., told the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
One business official shot back that shutting off the flow of foreign workers would destroy economic growth.
“If you’re going to try to enforce your way out of the illegal immigration problem, what you’re going to do is cripple the economy,” said John Gay of the National Restaurant Association.
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