The Immigrant Basher-in-Chief

Flanked by two black surveillance helicopters and a handpicked crew of stone-faced border agents, George Bush vowed to stop undocumented workers. “We want to make clear that when people violate our immigration laws, they are going to be sent home–and they need to stay at home,” Bush said.

This repackaging of Bush–who had previously sought to portray himself as a “compassionate conservative” on this issue–into a hard-boiled Minuteman migrant hunter reveals just how far immigration politics have swung to the right in the lead-up to the 2006 Congressional elections.

Nevertheless, behind the bluster, Bush assured his big business backers that he and Congress would deliver on a new “guest worker” program. “We will not be able to effectively enforce our immigration laws until we create a temporary worker program,” he said.

Under this plan, guest workers could receive two three-year work visas, after which they would have to return to their home countries and wait a year before reapplying. This virtually eliminates the possibility of establishing residency and citizenship for the 8 to 10 million undocumented workers and their families currently residing in the U.S. While the details of the latest version of Bush’s guest-worker proposal haven’t been revealed, his previous proposals have sought to expand the guest-worker program into every sector of the economy, not just agriculture.

Bush also backed up his invective against immigrants by signing a $32 billion homeland security spending bill for 2006 that contains large increases for border enforcement, including 1,000 additional Border Patrol agents.

Bush is simultaneously co-opting the far right’s rhetoric about “cracking down” on immigrants, while presenting his guest worker program as a workable alternative to mass deportation.

In this, Democrats in Congress have become the president’s biggest supporters. After telling Bush to “stand up to the right wing of his own party,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) went on to promote both the right wing’s deceptive characterization of the border and the need for a guest-worker program. “Unless we address the gap between our immigration laws and reality, illegal immigration will not stop, and the situation on the border will continue to be chaotic,” Reid recently stated.

Both Republicans and Democrats promote this image of a “border out of control.” Yet only about 1 percent of border crossings are by undocumented workers.

On top of this, a recent study reported in the New York Times has exposed the increasingly political nature of immigration prosecution. While undocumented immigration actually declined between the years 2000-2003 (from an average of 1.5 million a year to 1.1 million a year), immigration prosecutions against undocumented workers increased from 16,300 to 38,000 over the same time period.

The inflation of the immigration issue to serve political ends is also shown by the fact that, according to a Gallup Poll in late November, less than 5 percent of the public believed that immigration is the most pressing issue in the United States today.

The anti-immigrant hysteria is bipartisan. For example, liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has gone even further in enabling the Bush administration.

Along with Republican Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), he is co-sponsoring the “Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005,” which claims to solve the problems facing “America’s economic, social and security interests.” The legislation, pending before Congress, is virtually indistinguishable from Bush’s proposals, emphasizing both a guest-worker program and the “tightening of border security.”

Other Democratic heavy hitters like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) have also gotten on board the anti-immigrant bandwagon. In an interview on WABC radio, Clinton said: “I am, you know, adamantly against illegal immigrants.” Interviewed on Fox News, she accused Bush of not doing enough to “protect our borders and ports.”

And, of course, it was another Clinton–President Bill Clinton–whose Operation Gatekeeper” policies in the mid-1990s reinforced border hysteria, and contributed to the deaths of more than 3,500 migrant workers forced into rougher terrain trying to get past stepped-up border enforcement.

Bush’s brazen opportunism around the immigration issue shone through during tour of the border region in late November. It showed how successful far-right anti-immigrant groups have become at setting the tone for official politics. With little political opposition, vigilante groups like the Minutemen and California’s Save Our State (SOS) have forced the issue onto the national stage, by harassing and terrorizing border crossers and immigrant communities in an attempt to “call attention to the problem.”

As a leading member of SOS stated, “There is currently a mayoral race in the city of San Bernardino, and we are hoping to fan the anti-illegal immigration flames and force each candidate to make clear their position on illegal immigration and enforcement at the local level.”

On the state level, leading Minutemen are now trading in their guns and binoculars to run “respectable” electoral campaigns. In a recent State Assembly election in southern California, for example, Minutemen founder James Gilchrist ran his campaign solely on the issue of immigration, distributing flyers claiming that a vote for his opponent was a “vote for illegal immigration.”

The goal is to generate fear and hatred of immigrants–which serves to deflect attention from inequality, lack of jobs, the cutting of social welfare programs and other issues that have affected working people over the last few decades.

On the national level, these groups have had their voices amplified through the so-called Immigration Reform Caucus–71 members of Congress committed to ending “illegal immigration” and led by demagogue Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.).

It’s no surprise that in this environment, hate crimes against Latinos have increased, while unpopular politicians like Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have sought to cash in on the issue. According to the Los Angeles Times, “[Republican] strategists contend that the immigration issue offers an opportunity for the GOP to revive its flagging fortunes at a time when Bush and the party have been hobbled by public discontent over the war in Iraq, the response to Hurricane Katrina and ethics scandals.”

Bush’s “guest worker” proposal might appear to pull in the other direction, away from heightening anti-immigrant sentiment. But both have common aims–to increase profits, scapegoat immigrants and divide workers along national and ethnic lines.

The last guest-worker scheme in the U.S., the bracero program, brought more than 4.8 million workers into the U.S. between 1942 and 1964. It was a bonanza for agricultural growers, since braceros could not join unions, speak out or involve themselves in any political action. Active or vocal workers were deported if they did, and were sent back when they were no longer needed. Employers used guest workers as a permanent caste of labor to break unions, depress wages and fan the flames of racism in the competition for jobs.

All this shows why we need a new pro-immigrant civil rights movement–one that calls for legalization and amnesty, and opposes guest-worker programs, while supporting full and equal rights for the undocumented, whether in the country already or those who cross the border.

We also need to confront hate groups like the Minutemen–to expose their racist aims, weaken their resolve to target immigrants and turn the tables on the bigoted politicians raising their heads across the country.

JUSTIN AKERS writes for the Socialist Worker.