Republicans saw their chance to bash immigrants and, sure enough, they took it. Senate leaders appeared to have a bipartisan compromise that would toughen border security, create a new "guest-worker" program and give 12 million undocumented immigrants a path to a green card and eventual citizenship. But Democratic leader Harry Reid wanted assurance from Majority Leader Bill Frist that the bill would not be hijacked with amendments into a punitive measure similar to the one already passed by House Republicans. That version would build a wall the length of the US-Mexico border and make it a felony to enter the country illegally or to aid an undocumented alien.
Why did Reid distrust Frist and his minions? As Ron Brownstein noted in the Los Angeles Times, "Repeatedly in recent years, the Senate has forged bipartisan agreements on issues such as energy policy, the Medicare prescription drug plan and renewal of the PATRIOT Act, only to see much more conservative approaches emerge from conference committees with the House." Reid has been burned enough times that he smelled another double-cross coming.
For months President Bush stayed out of the congressional negotiations except to call for a "guest worker" provision to provide a cheap-labor valve. Then he had the gall to claim that Democrats were standing in the way of immigration reform.
The sudden crisis over immigration is suspicious. Republicans played the race card to great success in the South in the 1970s and '80s. They apparently hope immigration will be a new wedge issue in the Southwest and Midwest. Not only does the influx of millions of Mexican and Central American workers and their families raise fears among white citizens; GOP strategists hope the debate drives a wedge between black and Latino voters who increasingly form the Democratic base.
Bush had hoped to court immigrant voters with the GOP message of economic opportunity but he couldn't or wouldn't rein in nativists such as Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., and Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, who worked to derail the Senate compromise.
The draconian House bill brought immigrants out of the shadows for two weeks of peaceful but determined marches and rallies for their rights. Half a million Latinos rallied in Los Angeles on April 2 after Cardinal Roger Mahony expressed the Catholic Church's solidarity with immigrants. That was news. But when another half million showed up for a peaceful rally at Guadalupe Cathedral in Dallas the following Sunday, that should have raised some doubts in the GOP brain trust over what sort of giant they had woken up.
Some nativists complained about immigrants brandishing Mexican flags. As an Irish American who has been known to display the Irish tricolor as well as other symbols of my ethnic heritage upon occasion, I find it unremarkable that Mexican immigrants would rally 'round the flag of their homeland, as well as other symbols such as banners of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Neither of our displays imply any disrespect to the Stars and Stripes or disloyalty to the USA. But just as nativist Protestants in Boston were dismayed at the influx of Irish Catholics such as my great-grandmother and great-grandfather in the 1840s and "Know-Nothings" tried to burn Irish Catholic churches and put the infamous disclaimer on help-wanted and apartments-to-let signs that "no Irish need apply" in the 1850s, nowadays tribunes such as Lou Dobbs, G. Gordon Liddy and Charles Krauthammer rail against the brown hordes that threaten our Anglo-American way of life.
Well, Irish Americans now run Boston and are endemic throughout the country -- second only to German Americans in population. One of those Irish Americans is Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who told more than 200,000 immigrants who rallied in Washington, D.C., on April 10: "Some in Congress want to turn America away from its true spirit. They believe immigrants are criminals. That's false. They believe any of us who help immigrants -- even our priests -- are criminals, too. That's false. They say you should report to deport. I say report to become American citizens. More than fo ur decades ago, near this place, Martin Luther King called on the nation to let freedom ring. Freedom did ring -- and freedom can ring again. It is time for Americans to lift their voices now -- in pride for our immigrant past and in pride for our immigrant future."
In a generation Mexican Americans will run California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, and they will form sizeable minorities throughout the Midwest. Call it a Reconquest, if you will, but these immigrants are voting with their feet and their sons and daughters who were born on this side of the Rio Grande with full US citizenship will vote with ballots, no matter what nativists such as Tancredo and Cornyn say.
Democrats looked after the interests of Irish immigrants in the 1850s and the party earned dividends from that relationship in elections through the 1970s, when some Irish Americans started to believe they had prospered to the point where they could embrace the GOP "every man for himself" philosophy. Nowadays Republican nativists are driving a new generation of immigrants into Democratic ranks. Democrats should give them a reason to stay.
American workers should recognize that we are better off helping immigrants become citizens and organize into unions that will increase their pay, improve their lives and integrate them into the community.
A Mexican, or Guatemalan, or Somalian, or Kosovar, or Irishman, for that matter, might be drawn to the United States by the prospect of a $5.15-an-hour job, but they won't want to stay at the minimum wage once they get their green card. That is why businesses want a new "guest worker" program, which would import hundreds of thousands of workers every year for jobs US citizens supposedly won't take.
Bush's "guest worker" program is a form of indentured servitude that makes the worker beholden to his or her boss. It is merely an updated form of the old "bracero" program that provided low-wage Mexican laborers, mainly for field work, and was abused from the 1940s through 1964.
The "guest worker" program undercuts the pressure for higher wages and it violates market principles that the Right supposedly holds sacred. If a boss can't find legal residents to do jobs at $5.15 an hour, but instead has to import people from a third-world economy to do those jobs -- hello! -- that is a pretty good indicator that the minimum wage is woefully outdated.
Nathan Newman of the Progressive Legislative Action Network notes that states can act to strengthen undocumented workers' legal rights, as California did in 2002 with a law that affirms that labor protections are available to any employee "regardless of immigration status." New York's highest court in February ruled that undocumented workers injured at work retain the right to sue for compensation.
To stop illegal immigration, you simply make it too much of a financial risk to hire undocumented aliens. You do that by imposing stiff civil fines on employers who are caught hiring them. When immigration authorities pick up an alien, they should offer the alien a reward for cooperating with authorities in identifying his or her employer. Similar rewards also could be offered to tipsters who turn in employers of illegal aliens.
As undocumented aliens find it harder to get work, most likely would return to their home countries. That would leave a hole in the workforce to be filled by legal residents who would demand more pay for the same job.
Higher wages would mean higher prices at restaurants, higher construction costs, higher food prices and so on. Farmers would be pressed to find hands who would work at wages that would not price local produce out of line with foreign competitors. So be careful what you wish for. -- JMC