First they came for the Communists,” runs the opening of the famous poem about the Nazis’ incremental persecution of minorities. So perhaps we should admire the efficiency of Reps. James Sensenbrenner (R‑Wisc.) and Peter King (R‑N.Y.) in sponsoring “immigration reform” legislation that revokes the rights of both undocumented immigrants and the rest of us, all at once.
In December, the House passed the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act by a vote of 239 to 182, thanks to the complicity of 36 Democrats. Reading as if it was penned in a vacuum – wholly removed from the 12 million undocumented immigrants toiling in the dark underbelly of our glistening, service-oriented New Economy – the 257-page bill is an affront to reality. Among other monstrosities, it would classify these workers as felons subject to imprisonment, permanently bar them from legal status, put numerous roadblocks in the way of legal immigrants and political refugees, and authorize construction of a giant fence along a third of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Given the perverse glee our culture takes in penalizing its marginalized, the act’s solely punitive measures toward undocumented immigrants should come as no surprise. What might be more surprising – although it’s become increasingly less so – is that the bill also tramples the rights of U.S. citizens. The act defines “smugglers” of immigrants so broadly that it would include a counselor helping victims of domestic violence, a church volunteer providing them with food or clothing, or a worker driving a fellow employee to the bus stop. Such senseless acts of kindness could be rewarded with up to five years in prison.
Of course, enforcing this law and imprisoning the millions of doctors, teachers and workers who deal with immigrants on a daily basis is patently absurd, as well as rife with the potential to be selectively used. As Josh Bernstein, director of federal policy for the L.A.-based National Immigration Law Center, says, “Anti-immigration groups often talk about the rule of law, but here we are passing laws that nobody believes are going to be enforced.”
The good news is that the House bill won’t become law as is. The bad news is that the immigration reform bill of Sen. Arlen Specter (R‑Pa.), being marked up in committee as In These Times went to press, is only marginally better. If given enough time to work, however, the committee appears likely to incorporate many of the provisions of the bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Ted Kennedy (D‑Mass.) and John McCain (R‑Ariz.). While far from perfect, it would put undocumented immigrants on the path to citizenship.
Unfortunately, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R‑Tenn.) has threatened to undercut the committee and introduce his own bill, focused solely on border control measures, to the Senate floor on March 27. Frist is rushing this important legislation for the same reason the House bill got passed in the first place: political grandstanding.
Despite the split on immigration between the GOP’s business faction and its culturally conservative base, many Republicans would love to show voters how “tough” they are on immigrants, regardless of how ill-thought-out the legislation may be. In a cynical attempt to fire up their base, they are willing to destroy the slowly emerging, bipartisan consensus on real immigration reform.
In a beautiful irony, however, the strategy may well backfire. On March 10, activists organized a march in Chicago to protest the House legislation. They expected 10,000 people, at most; instead, more than 100,000 showed up. The divisive legislation awoke what Bernstein calls a “sleeping giant”: the growing political power of Latinos. “If I was a Republican,” says Bernstein, “I would be scared. I would be really scared.”