The Bipartisan Border Wall

Five months after some of the biggest demonstrations in U.S. history, immigrants have come under fire–not only from conservative Republicans, law enforcement agencies and right-wing vigilantes, but from their supposed friends among congressional Democrats.

In September, a majority of Senate Democrats voted to approve construction of 700 more miles of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. The Democrats could have easily stalled the vote, which was held at the end of the session prior to adjournment ahead of the November elections.

Instead, the Democrats scrambled to keep the Republicans from outflanking them on the immigration issue, voting for an enforcement-only immigration bill that most had vowed to oppose.

Such tactics are to be expected from the likes of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who specializes in “triangulating” issues to appeal to moderate Republicans. This time, though, thanks to liberal darling Sen. Barack Obama, the Democrats had political cover to join with Republicans to back the law. Obama voted for the wall despite earlier vows never to do so without other measures to allow for the legalization of at least some immigrants.

Many immigrant rights activists were shocked at the move. Dr. Juan Andrade Jr., president of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute, called on Obama to apologize for his vote, calling the wall “an insult to those of us of Mexican ancestry.”

Obama pointedly refused to apologize. “I have supported and will continue to support comprehensive immigration reform that will provide a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants in this country,” the senator said in a statement. “But I disagree with those who think that we can do this without measures that allow us to control our borders.”

“Comprehensive immigration reform” is a code phrase for proposed Senate legislation that would divide undocumented immigrants into three categories–those who can eventually apply for a highly restricted “path to citizenship,” those eligible for guest-worker status, and the most recent arrivals, who are excluded altogether.

To try to obtain congressional backing for such a program, the main sponsors of the proposed Senate legislation on immigration–including Democrat Ted Kennedy and Republicans John McCain, Chuck Hagel and Mel Martinez–were willing to allow a vast expansion of immigration law enforcement mechanisms, including a border wall.

The senators’ strategy was to accept the harsh crackdown on immigration advocated by conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives in exchange for the guest-worker provisions coveted by Corporate America. Instead, leading House Republicans rallied around another proposal, HR 4437, written by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.)–a measure that, if passed, would turn the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S. into felons.

With the issue at a stalemate as the elections approached, House leaders decided to pass provisions of the Sensenbrenner bill piece by piece–including authorization for the additional border wall construction.

At first, this strategy was seen as a political stunt to satisfy the Republicans’ right-wing base. But rather than call the Republicans’ bluff–or at least stall the measure–Senate Democrats shamefully went along.

Seventeen Democrats voted against the Secure Fence Act of 2006, and 26 voted for it, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California as well as Clinton and Obama. The lopsided 80-19 vote gave the border wall bill a bipartisan seal of approval.

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The border wall wasn’t the only repressive anti-immigrant measure passed in Congress on September 29.

A $33.7 billion spending bill to fund Department of Homeland Security operations also gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the power to “take all actions…necessary” to stop “all unlawful entries into the United States”–that is, to accelerate the stepped-up program of raids and detentions in immigrant communities across the U.S.

Besides providing a $1.2 billion down payment on the border wall, the bill will fund the hiring of 1,500 border patrol agents, create 6,700 additional beds at detention centers for undocumented immigrants, and fund new vehicle barriers and high-tech sensors along the border. Also, as the Los Angeles Times points out, the bill “significantly boosts” funding for “enforcement of immigration laws at work sites and elsewhere.”

In the House, the Homeland Security spending bill passed 412-6, with just three Democrats opposed. In the Senate, which voted on the measure back in July, the tally was 100-0.

In fact, stepped-up enforcement of immigration law is already underway, part of a well-orchestrated backlash against last spring’s immigrant rights demonstrations.

The crackdown has three prongs: raids by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities; local police enforcement of both local and federal anti-immigrant laws; and moves by major employers to terminate immigrant workers on the basis of “no match” letters issued by the Social Security Administration when Social Security numbers on file don’t match those provided by workers.

Together, such measures create an apparatus through which the government can hunt undocumented workers–one that will be used to target the more than 2 million people who wouldn’t be eligible to participate in the proposed guest-worker program, should it ever become law.

These policies conform to a strategy proposed more than a year ago by Mark Kirkorian of the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies. In an article entitled “Downsizing Illegal Immigration: A Strategy of Attrition Through Enforcement,” Kirkorian called for “shrink[ing] the illegal population through consistent, across-the-board enforcement of the immigration law.

“By deterring the settlement of new illegals, by increasing deportations to the extent possible, and, most importantly, by increasing the number of illegals already here who give up and deport themselves, the United States can bring about an annual decrease in the illegal-alien population, rather than allowing it to continually increase.”

The result, said Martín Unzueta, an organizer with the Chicago Workers Collaborative, is that “the authorities are trying to put the Sensenbrenner bill into practice right now, even though we don’t have the law.”

For that reason, the organization teamed up with the Illinois AFL-CIO, Jobs With Justice, the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and other labor and immigrant rights groups to host a two-day summit on the new attacks, held in Chicago on October 13 and 14.

The first day brought together some 50 union organizers, who strategized on how to prevent employers from summarily dismissing workers on the basis of Social Security “no-match” letters and the so-called Basic Pilot Program, a voluntary program in which employers verify workers’ immigration status via a government Web site.

On the second day of the summit, some 60 workers attended, many of them Latino activists in the UNITE HERE union seeking to organize Cintas, the giant industrial laundry and uniform company. Cintas, like many employers, is implementing proposed federal regulations on “no-match” letters even before they take effect, and has moved to terminate 400 workers, thereby undermining unionization efforts, organizers say.

Actually, “no-match” violations, which are monitored by Homeland Security, are often the fault of incorrect government databases, according to the NILC. The same is true, they say, of the information in the Basic Pilot Program.

The new pressure on immigrants in the workplace is paralleled by increasingly aggressive actions by police, another major focus of the summit. “There is in many places a devolution from the federal government to state and local authorities” in immigration law enforcement, according to Joan Friedland of NILC, who spoke at the Chicago conference.

While police in cities like New York and Chicago have a formal policy of not collaborating with federal immigration authorities, their counterparts in Arizona, Georgia and elsewhere are increasingly working with ICE.

Now thanks to congressional Democrats’ backing for expanded immigration law enforcement, the crackdown is set to intensify, with or without “comprehensive” immigration reform.

“This is a real crisis that’s on the verge of exploding with some of the actions that the Department of Homeland Security is taking in regard to no-match letters, worksite enforcement and collaboration with police departments,” said Tim Bell of the Chicago Workers Collaborative. “The question is, is the community going to organize and put a stop to it?”

LEE SUSTAR is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at:



LEE SUSTAR is the labor editor of Socialist Worker