Bush, Immigration and the Democrats

Last night, in a live address to the nation on the immigration debate, George W. Bush did what he does best–scapegoat people of color and invoke the War on Terror to get what he wants. It is a familiar theme, played out in Afghanistan, Iraq, New Orleans, the WTO, and quite possibly Iran in the near future. There is seemingly no proposal that he cannot tie to fighting terrorism; one gets the sense that the man bases what he eats for breakfast on it (every morning, no doubt, Bush awakens to a bowl of Captain Crunch, whom he has already enlisted in the battle against the evildoers).

In response to Bush’s speech, which included a plan to send up to 6000 National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border, the call for a guest worker program and the denial of citizenship to millions of immigrants deemed too ‘new’ for the privilege, the Democratic Party also did what it does best–agree with him.

In his speech, Bush outlined an immigration reform plan that, in his own words, walks a “middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant, and a program of mass deportation.”

It is indeed a middle ground. On one side is the ultra-xenophobic right wing of his own party, exemplified by the Minutemen and such visionary statesmen as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, who responded to worries that deporting 12 million undocumented workers would have a devastating impact on the economy with this gem: “I say let the prisoners pick the fruits.” On the other is big business and their lackeys in Congress, desperate for a bill that ensures an influx of vulnerable labor and codifies their ability to super-exploit them at will.

It is also a middle ground that the Democratic Party seems happy to occupy; they have sided with Bush on nearly every issue of importance in the immigration debate. The fact that they opposed back the uber-draconian Sensenbrenner bill (HR 4437) is of little solace to the millions of immigrants they seek to relegate to second-class citizenship and the millions more they simply wish to deport.

The Democratic response, both in the form of the immediate rebuttal given by Sen. Dick Durbin, the assistant minority leader, and the legislation they have supported in the Senate, does not even rise to the level of pathetic. It is a non-response, essentially a total agreement. The six main features of Bush’s plan and the Democrats’ reaction to them:

Guest worker program
This legalized form of indentured servitude is the centerpiece of the Democrats’ reform agenda. It was a major part of the McCain-Kennedy bill and the Senate Judiciary Committee bill that was passed with the support of every Democrat on the committee.

A ‘path to citizenship’ as opposed to amnesty
Bush: “I believe that illegal immigrants who have roots in our country and want to stay should have to pay a meaningful penalty for breaking the law, to pay their taxes, to learn English, and to work in a job for a number of years. People who meet these conditions will have to wait in line behind those who played by the rules and followed the law. What I have just described is not amnesty. It is a way for those who have broken the law to pay their debt to society.”

Durbin: “People who have broken our laws should not and will not be rewarded with amnesty. But people who work hard and play by the rules should have a chance to earn their way to legal status if they pay a fine, learn English, pay back taxes and go to the back of the line.”

No comment necessary.

The building of additional detention centers for immigrants caught crossing the border
Bush vowed to end the practice of ‘catch-and-release,’ a rather dehumanizing way of describing the practice of letting immigrants from countries other than Mexico go if they are caught trying to cross the border. The Democrats shine here as well, as the Senate Judiciary Committee bill mandates expedited removal (deportation without recourse to an immigration judge) for all non-Mexican and non-Cuban immigrants found within 100 miles of the border within two weeks of their entry and increases the number of detention beds–just as Bush proposed in his address.

Tamper-proof identification cards using biometric technology
Could Bush have been cribbing from the McCain-Kennedy bill? Title IV of that bill requires that “immigration-related documentsbe upgraded to include biometric verification of travelers.”

Assimilation, with an emphasis on learning English
Coming from Bush, one can only assume that this was not an attempt at irony. Either way, the Democrats are fully on board, as Title IX of the McCain-Kennedy bill provides funding for programs that ‘promote citizenship’ through increased English language instruction for immigrants.

Sending 6000 National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border
This was Bush’s most controversial proposal, and there have been rumblings against this aspect of his plan from even some members of his own party. One could at least expect a certain amount of protest over the idea of literally militarizing the border.

Alas, ’twas not to be. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid had no qualms about the plan, telling CNN, “On the face of it, I think it is a good idea, but I say we have to be very specific what the president wants to do. I think that we have to understand that the states can’t afford to do this. This is not their responsibility. It’s a federal responsibility.” Sending armed troops to the border is fine; the only question is who will pay for it.

To hammer the point home, Durbin added during his rebuttal, “Democrats are willing to support any reasonable plan that will secure our borders, including the deployment of National Guard troops.”

All this from the ‘liberal lion’ of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, and one of its more liberal members, Durbin.

To put it bluntly: we need to defeat this bill, whatever form it eventually takes. Despite the millions of immigrants and their allies that have marched, rallied, gone on strike and boycotted, it is increasingly clear that any legislation Congress might actually pass this year will make life worse for undocumented workers, not better.

Should a ‘compromise’ bill come out of the Senate and ultimately be passed by the entire Congress, expect the Democrats to tell those of us in the movement to go home, shut up, and reward them for their treachery with our votes come November. Some will say that this is the best we can expect and that the real work is in electing a Democrat-controlled Congress in 2006, and a Democrat as President in 2008, in order to ‘fix’ the bill.

We shouldn’t buy it. Our job is to build a movement that understands we can do better, that looks to the history of the US working class, and immigrant struggles in particular, for inspiration and guidance. We are constantly being told to slow down, to not be too ‘extreme’ in our quest for justice, and often times the other side’s pleas have worked; but history is replete with examples of an explosion of anger and hope that cannot be contained by conniving and opportunism, and it is those moments that have been the source of every great movement that has transformed society.

Now is not the time to appeal to Congress, write our Representatives, or lobby the very people who are leading the fight for a new bracero program. The way forward is the kind of struggle and class politics that were so evident on May Day–millions of workers telling the politicians and their corporate bosses that until they receive justice, there will be no more business as usual.

Of course, this movement, like every other in American history, will suffer its setbacks along with its triumphs. After a string of successes, the next few months will see a counter-offensive by the Democratic Party and their liberal allies to narrow the terms of debate to what is ‘realistic’ and convince us that the Senate bill is worth supporting. We may not win this fight in the short term; with Bush, both parties in Congress and the business community aligned against us, in an effort to keep the cheap labor flowing and to try to rob the movement of its momentum, our side is up against some formidable odds.

No matter what happens in the next six months, though, there will still be millions of the most vulnerable among us in search of justice, demanding it, fighting for it, and that fight will not end with the passage of this or that bill.

This is a time for serious discussion and debate on the left and in the immigrants’ rights movement. We have an opportunity to build a movement of the working class that we haven’t seen in America in decades, but that won’t happen automatically or overnight. The first steps in this effort will take place this summer, with the regional conferences in Los Angeles, Chicago, and elsewhere called by a meeting of leading immigrants’ rights organizers in Chicago on April 22. There is a national conference, also called by the April 22 meeting, slated for July. The Socialism conference in New York City on June 22-25 will play a part in this effort as well, with Nativo Lopez of the Mexican American Political Association, Peter Camejo, Green Party Senate candidate Todd Chretien, and other leading immigrants’ right organizers and activists set to speak and discuss the way forward for the movement.

As we organize our forces and prepare for the long road ahead, we will carry the exhilaration and potential of May 1st with us, we will remember Anthony Soltero and the thousands of immigrants killed crossing the border, and we will never lose sight of our commitment to amnesty and justice for undocumented workers.

The battle has been joined; it’s time for our side to get ready. There is much work ahead of us, much to be discussed and debated, but as they say, we have a world to win.

MICHAEL GEORGE SMITH is a student at the University of California, Berkeley and a member of the Berkeley May 1st Mobilization Committee. He can be reached at michael.smith3@gmail.com.