The good news from the off-year general election on Nov. 6 was that immigration is not the wedge issue Republicans had counted on to distract voters from the disastrous effects of six years of neocon misrule. The bad news is that Democratic leaders are still more scared of Fox News than they are of progressive voters.
Republicans hoped immigrant-bashing would be the silver bullet to knock down Democrats in 2008. But that bullet appeared to be a dud in elections in Virginia and New York, as Dems gained control of the Virginia Senate and expanded control in the New York City suburbs of Suffolk County, Long Island.
Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who will likely become majority leader in the Virginia Senate, told the Washington Post (Nov. 7): The results are proving that, while immigration is a concern to people and it should be it is not returning the votes that [anti-immigrant leaders] thought that it would.
Despite local agitation over immigration in both states, the Progressive States Network (progressivestates.org) noted that elections turned on a range of other issues, from taxes to land-use policies. Hard-line anti-immigrant candidates generally lost out to candidates who argued more broadly for progressive policies to address public needs.
Democrats are leery. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., House Democratic Caucus chair, has been advising the partys congressional candidates to steer right on immigration reforms. When Niki Tsongas, widow of former Sen. Paul Tsongas, won an Oct. 16 special election in the Boston suburbs by only 51% to 45%, after the Republican candidate railed against illegal immigrants, the close margin spooked Emanuel, who told the Washington Post, This issue has real implications for the country. It captures all the American peoples anger and frustration not only with immigration, but with the economy.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., had a good proposal with the DREAM Act, which would provide legal status for young aliens who were brought to this country as children if they attend college or volunteer for military service. But the 52 votes the bill got Oct. 24 were not enough to overcome a Republican filibuster. Eight Dems voted against the bill, while 12 Republicans voted for it. Durbin said some senators are running scared on the illegal immigrant issue. Switchboards light up, the hate starts spewing and people get concerned, to say the least, he told reporters.
It is unclear how upset the American public really is over immigration. In 2006, the Associated Press claimed that immigration is a growing concern among voters. But Gallup reported that despite the media attention it has received, immigration usually ranks low when Americans are asked to rate the importance of various issues.
That suggests that immigration concerns can sway a voter if progressives arent talking about other more potent issues, such as the increasingly costly military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, trade policies that encourage the movement of manufacturing jobs overseas and the lack of health care as workers lose their jobs or businesses cut back on health coverage.
The lesson is that Democrats should not let Republicans and immigrant-bashers dictate the agenda. If Dems address the broad economic concerns of voters, a progressive immigration proposal can become a winning issue. With the native Latino electorate already growing in key states, the political future belongs to political leaders who reach out to new immigrants while also addressing the concerns of native citizens.
Much of the voter anger appears to revolve around the belief that illegal immigrants are unfairly using government benefits or that they are little better than common criminals.
Progressives should point out that undocumented immigrants not only pay more in taxes than they use in public benefits, but they subsidize billions in contributions to Social Security and Medicare for benefits that they are not allowed to claim.
Out of an estimated 12 million undocumented aliens in the country, 7.5 million are in the workforce. The unemployment rate is now under 5%, which many economists consider to be full employment. If it were practical for federal authorities to round up and deport millions of undocumented aliens, farms and businesses would have a hard time replacing those workers.
Instead, those who have been living and working peacefully in this country should be given papers to stay during a further probationary period. If they behave, then they might apply for citizenship. In the meantime, if an employer tries to stiff them on their pay, or otherwise violates the law, the immigrant could report the boss to authorities without fearing deportation. Once immigrants achieve legal status they can negotiate for better wages and benefits, which benefits the whole workforce.
Would this legalization harm immigrants who followed the rules to qualify for residency? Not at all. Process them first.
After these reforms are in place, the US should secure the borders and set up a reasonable process to determine future levels of immigration. Federal authorities should prosecute employers who violate labor laws including the employment of undocumented aliens and especially those who fail to deduct taxes for their employees. Future trade, military and foreign aid agreements should be tied not only worker protections but also to economic progress for the working class.
When a recent Democracy Corps poll found that 70% of the public says the country is on the wrong track, the poll found that this derived from feelings of big business getting whatever they want in Washington, leaders forgetting the middle class, and America doing nothing about problems at home.
Congressional Democrats owe their majority in no small part to freshmen who pledged opposition to free trade deals that encourage manufacturers to send jobs overseas. But on Nov. 8 Democratic leaders once again knuckled under to the Bush administration when they brought up the Peru Free Trade Agreement for a House vote despite the opposition of a majority of the Democratic caucus. The House voted 285-132 in favor of the US-Peru trade deal despite opposition of organized labor in the US and Peru. House Democrats opposed the agreement by 116 to 109 but Republicans supported it 176 to 16.
When the Republicans controlled the House, they refused to bring up a bill for a vote unless a majority of the GOP caucus supported it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi not only overrode the objections of the majority of her caucus, but the Democratic leadership rejected fair trade amendments that would have made the deal more acceptable. Then they whipped Democratic members to vote for the pact in the form that the nakedly anti-labor Bush administration presented it.
In terms of economic consequences, The Nations Bill Greider notes, the Peru trade deal is trivial. In political terms, however, it delivers an ominous message. When faced with a choice between money and their own rank-and-file, the Democratic leaders in the House will go with the money, even if it requires them to pass legislation with Republican votes. Even if a majority of their own caucus is opposed. Even if it means handing the shrinking president, George W. Bush, a rare legislative victory.
The issue is spilling into the presidential campaign, as Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have announced that they will support the Peru trade deal that is now headed to the Senate for a vote, while Sens. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd oppose it. John Edwards also opposed the Peru deal.
As the Senate takes it up, the Democratic Party faces a decision: Will it continue supporting the multinational corporations that funnel their contributions through K Street, or will it follow its populist rhetoric and stand with Middle America? JMC
From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2007
Subscribe to The Progressive Populist