Some of our readers take us to task for our sympathy for immigrants in the immigration reform debate. "True Populists would never advocate or defend policies that resulted in depressing the wages of working men and women in the United States," Gilbert Fite writes in a letter on page 4. We share his frustration with the economic forces that have drawn as many as 12 million immigrants to stay in this country illegally. But we don't think immigrants are the enemy. Blame those who take advantage of the immigrants.
It is no accident that an estimated 11 to 12 million people have come into the US in search of a better life in the 20 years since the last immigration reform, during the Reagan administration. That migration accelerated with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
Ross Perot predicted in 1993 that as manufacturing in northern Mexico expanded, hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers would be drawn north. "They will quickly find that wages in the Mexican maquiladora plants cannot compete with wages anywhere in the US. Out of economic necessity, many of these mobile workers will consider illegally immigrating into the US," Perot wrote.
If anything, Perot underestimated the threat. Roger Bybee and Carolyn Winter noted in the 6/1/06 TPP that the movement of US agribusiness into Mexico has pushed more than 2 million Mexicans off the farms and into the cities, looking for jobs. Retailers such as Wal-Mart have moved into Mexico, displacing an estimated 28,000 small- and medium-sized Mexican businesses. And Mexican factory wages actually have fallen, as multinational firms force them to compete even cheaper manufacturing costs in China and other lower-cost nations.
The US economy largely absorbed those immigrants through the boom years of the 1990s. Even with the Bush recession after 2001, their presence was little noted outside service industries, building trades and meatcutting industry, where immigrants were employed to keep down the pressure for higher wages.
But this year Republicans were looking for an issue that could excite working-class whites, since it was apparent that tax cuts for the rich weren't doing anything for them. It looks like they decided that they could stir up the rednecks by ginning up an immigration "crisis." Never mind that Republicans in Congress voted overwhelmingly last year to expand NAFTA to Central America and the Dominican Republic. That trade bill will further increase the economic squeeze on US workers as well as their Latin American counterparts.
But the threat of a brown horde of illegal aliens was thought to be an excellent distraction. House Republicans, working with the White House, produced a bill that not only made undocumented aliens criminals; it made everyone who dealt with illegal immigrants felons as well. The House bill offers no path to citizenship, which nativists say amounts to amnesty for lawbreakers.
The Senate GOP was split between corporatist Republicans such as Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who support a solution that tightens border controls but provides illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, and the nativists led by Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, who want to lock down the borders and deny illegal immigrants "amnesty."
A compromise bill emerged in the Senate that would give some immigrants a path to citizenship but would force others to return to their native countries or go back underground.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., put up a populist amendment to do away with the low-skilled "guest-worker" visa program. It was defeated 69-28.
We agree with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that the three-tiered system that emerged is unworkable, will create a bureaucratic nightmare and will lead to substantial fraud. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said the compromise bill would force many immigrants to leave his state who have helped revive small towns by buying homes and starting businesses.
The White House, perhaps seeing the possibility of providing more work for Republican-friendly contractors, embraced the right wing's plan to install 370 miles of border fence and high-tech tools to monitor activity along the border. Bush has sent mixed signals on the proposal to make English the official language. And of course Bush knuckled under on deploying 6,000 National Guard troops along the southern border, a studied insult to Mexico.
The good news is that, in the hyper-partisan atmosphere in the House, what passes for GOP leadership refuses to advance a bill that Democrats might be able to support. Speaker Dennis Hastert insists that major legislation reach the House floor only if it appears to be backed by a "majority of the majority." As Fred Barnes wrote in the right-wing Weekly Standard, "House Republican leaders don't want to be put in the politically awkward position of relying on Democrats to approve a comprehensive bill -- while a majority of Republicans holds out for narrower legislation. But if they persist in holding out, immigration reform may die."
Bush had hoped Republicans could build on their support among Latino voters with appeals to patriotism, family and religious values. But as the nativist wing adopts increasingly hostile, immigrant-bashing rhetoric, and Bush feels obliged to give lip service to the xenophobes, polls are starting to show Latino voters leaving the GOP behind.
A survey of 800 registered Hispanic voters conducted May 11-15 by the nonpartisan Latino Coalition showed that Democrats were viewed as better able to handle immigration issues than Republicans, by nearly 3 to 1: 50% to 17%, the Washington Post reported. Pitting Democrats against Bush on immigration issues produced a 2 to 1 Democratic advantage.
Even if Republicans keep a third of Hispanic voters, Democrats win because Latinos are growing as a share of the electorate. The Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University conducted a study that showed, if past voting patterns hold, Democrats will increase their 2004 vote totals by nearly half a million votes in 2008. Hispanic vote growth would move two Southwestern battleground states -- Nevada and New Mexico -- into the Democratic column by 2016 and add Iowa and Ohio by 2020. Democrats also hope the Latino vote could put Texas back into play and push Arizona and Florida into the solidly blue column.
Texas has 3.38 million foreign born residents, of which the Center for Immigration Studies estimates 1.35 million are undocumented. Florida has 3.2 million immigrants, with 780,000 illegal. Arizona has 851,000 immigrants, with 480,000 undocumented. It is in the interest of Republicans to send as many of those people back to their native countries as possible. Why Democrats should cooperate in deporting potential Democrats is beyond our comprehension.
Border security is important, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said, but it will not fix our broken immigration system. "Immigration reform must include the protection of rights and standards for all workers including permanent relief to the millions of undocumented workers currently living and working in this country; it is long past time to put this struggling underground community above ground and recognize their enormous contributions. To do otherwise guarantees a secondary class of workers easily subject to exploitation," he said.
We agree. Instead of joining Senate Republicans in a flawed immigration bill, Democrats should let intra-GOP divisions prevent a bad bill from passing this year. Matthew Yglesias recently wrote, "Nobody knows exactly how the midterms will play out, but Dems are all-but-certain to pick up some seats and be able to pass a bill in 2007 that's better than any possible compromise in the current Congress." -- JMC