Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Border Politics

By Marc Cooper

Six-term Phoenix-area Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., spent much of the last year trying to surf what he saw as a mounting anti-immigration wave. His hastily written book calling for U.S. troops along a fenced-off border, ``Whatever It Takes: Illegal Immigration, Border Security and the War on Terror,'' came out just in time for what he no doubt believed would be an easy re-election run. But it turned out that Hayworth fenced himself right out of office -- he lost Nov. 7 to a Democratic rival who had proposed a more liberalized immigration policy.
Hard-liner Hayworth's defeat was no aberration. His was only the most dramatic of a string of electoral losses by conservatives who radically misjudged the national mood on immigration. Also in Arizona, Republican Randy Graf, who boasted of his support from a Minuteman PAC, failed to take an open congressional seat that had been in GOP hands for 22 years. Again, his Democrat opponent campaigned on a less restrictive border policy and won in a southern Arizona district that is ground zero for illegal immigration. A similar defeat was handed out to anti-illegal immigration crusader Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., and to more than a dozen other Republicans who had campaigned on ardent close-the-border platforms.
An issue that many House GOP conservatives had fancied as the perfect wedge to help cleave a midterm victory wound up splitting their own party and contributing to its loss of Congress. Along with Social Security privatization, the get-tough immigration issue has proven to be one of the great political fizzles of the last few years.
So now that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and the Democrats control the House agenda, and with more pro-reform Democrats also in the Senate, isn't passage of a more liberal and modern border policy a slam-dunk in the next Congress?
Hardly. Passage of comprehensive reform remains iffy, and it might now be the Democrats' turn to see their party torn apart over immigration issues. It was easy for Democrats to advocate liberalized reform when they were in the minority and knew the programs they voted for weren't going to pass. It's a far different challenge for them now that they hold legislative power and might be tempted to weigh the political risks and shirk the responsibilities of bold leadership.
Earlier this year, a common sense and comprehensive immigration reform measure supported by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., by business interests and at least a sizable chunk of organized labor, won approval in the GOP-controlled Senate. The legislation received at least some support from the White House, and the Senate leadership compromised with Democrats to push the measure through. Not only would border security have been strengthened, but also a guest worker program would have provided legal entry for hundreds of thousands of migrants.
And most important, a long period of national denial would have come to an end with the earned legalization of millions of undocumented workers. But the more ideological leadership in the House blocked the bipartisan reform, mocking it as ``amnesty'' for lawbreakers. Instead, they settled only for more troops along the border and a 700-mile-long wall.
It's not as though the Democrats have an admirable recent track record on immigration. Indeed, the current policy of allowing increasing numbers of impoverished immigrants to run a horrendous gantlet across a brutal desert, only then to employ them in low-wage jobs with no legal standing, is as much -- if not more -- a creation of the Democrats as the Republicans.
In the wake of the public fear provoked by the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton supported and signed the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which imposed draconian restrictions on the judicial rights of illegal and legal residents. Two years earlier, Clinton, concerned that he would pay the political price for images of desperate Mexicans streaming across the border, had ordered a series of clampdowns at traditional crossing zones from San Diego to El Paso.
Then-California Gov. Pete Wilson had just won re-election by riding the crest of anti-immigrant Proposition 187, which made illegal residents ineligible for social services and public school education, and Clinton -- who had lost his first re-election campaign as Arkansas governor after being accused of being soft on illegal immigrants -- didn't want to be caught once again on the wrong side of a hot-button issue.
The Clinton administration blockades of urban border areas remain in effect today, but they have had no effect on the actual number of illegal crossings. Their primary impact has been to divert the human traffic into the most remote, most perilous, out-of-sight-out-of-mind, routes cutting through mountainous desert. In the last 12 years, the annual death toll of border crossers -- succumbing to heat and dehydration -- has risen 10-fold to a staggering 500 per year (Compare this to the death toll of less than 300 in the entire 28-year history of the Berlin Wall).
The legacy of the ``unintended consequences'' of the Clinton policy looms over migrant gathering areas south of the border, where displays of shrine-like hand-painted crosses memorialize those who have perished in transit. Even a cursory trip to the Mexican border -- many of which I have made over the past five years as a reporter -- reveals that a most hypocritical, and often deadly, charade is being played out.
On a recent visit to the binational Arizona border town of Nogales, I stood on the U.S. side of a 2.5-mile-long, 12-foot-high wall erected by the Clinton administration that divides the town in two. Constructed with steel landing mats salvaged from the gulf war, reinforced by 13 surveillance towers with 28 remote controlled cameras, and its surroundings peppered with countless seismic, metal, directional and infrared sensors, it stands as a monument to folly.
U.S. Border Patrol Agent Sean King, who brought me there, said there are ``thousands'' who still cross illegally every year through the heart of the city. They go around, through or literally under the wall. ``We know of 168 sewer points,'' he said, that are used as tunnels.
Agent King and I made this trip just a few weeks after the House had approved a 700-mile version of the same wall. ``I don't see it working, just on this fence alone,'' he said pointing to a jumble of welded patches on the wall in front of us. ``We already have a welding crew of 5 or 6 agents working around the clock to fill in the holes. Can you imagine what it would mean to maintain a 700-mile long wall in the middle of nowhere?''
Perhaps the new Democratic-led House will find something better to do with the $2 billion or more it will cost to build that wall. But comprehensive reform has been egregiously omitted from Speaker Pelosi's much-touted legislative agenda.
Legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. would carry obvious political benefits for whichever party took the lead. The Latino vote is burgeoning and has become a crucial vote in the increasingly swing states of the Mountain West and the Southwest. Coveting that vote was one reason why George W. Bush revived the dormant immigration debate in 2004 and made his dramatic call for a guest worker program.
But there are also risks and liabilities. When the Republican right flank rose in revolt against Bush's moderate immigration views, the president's resolve faltered and he quickly watered down his proposals. There's no reason to believe that Democrats didn't take note. Much of the Democratic electoral strategy this year was aimed at successfully winning over middle-of-the-road suburban and rural voters. These are precisely the constituencies that Democrats might be most afraid of alienating if the party is seen as capitulating to illegal immigrants.
Another potential fault line on immigration runs smack through the middle of one of the Democrats' most powerful political pillars -- organized labor. The AFL-CIO originally supported the McCain-Kennedy reforms, but it eventually opposed the guest worker programs that emerged from the bipartisan accords in the Senate. AFL-CIO officials argued that legalized low-wage workers would take jobs from Americans. But the powerful 1.2 million-member Service Employees International Union, which split from the AFL-CIO, has taken a strong lead in pushing immigration reform, including guest worker programs. Democrats, who reap tons of dollars and legions of campaign foot soldiers from both union factions, could easily be torn by the crosscurrents.
In any scenario, eventual passage of a sweeping reform bill will require a measure of political courage and risk-taking that has been sorely absent from Washington in recent years. The question is whether or not the realities of immigration will finally force decisive action. Once the near-exclusive realm of human rights and Latino advocacy groups, liberalized immigration reform has now become a top priority not only for powerful unions like the SEIU but also for the American business community. Corporate America -- not traditionally seen as the champion of the downtrodden and hungry -- now believes that its very future is staked on access to a growing, young and hard-working immigrant workforce.
We're about to see if any of the pragmatism of the business lobby will be transmitted to the liberals now taking control of Congress. It would be a great historical irony if the new majority Democrats found themselves to the political right of the Chamber of Commerce in confronting one our most pressing national problems.