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Politicians' proposals all keep immigrants at the back of the bus
No compromise on justice

April 14, 2006 | Page 3

THE BANNERS and chants of immigrant rights protesters call for equality, justice and amnesty. But the U.S. Senate is arguing over whether to keep undocumented workers as second-class citizens, or criminalize them and kick them out.

Last week, the Senate failed to agree on a "compromise" bill that would have created a guest-worker program to supply Corporate America with low-wage, no-rights workers.

The failed deal would have required 1.5 million undocumented workers who have entered the U.S. since 2004 to leave and never come back. Another 3 million who have lived in the U.S. for more than two years but less than five would have had to leave the country and apply to become guest workers at a port of entry--where many would no doubt be kept out.

Some 7 million people who have lived in the country longer than five years would have to pay fines and back taxes and learn English, just to apply to become citizens--but only after waiting another six years in a legal limbo.

This rotten deal--backed by leading Democrats like Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.)--unraveled after the Republican right prepared to push amendments for further border militarization, and to make guest-worker status and eventual citizenship nearly impossible to achieve.

The political debate has been further confused by liberals and "progressives" joining the bipartisan call for restricting immigration through tougher enforcement.

This gives cover to the right-wing Republican campaign to scapegoat immigrants in the 2006 congressional election. For Republicans--faced with George W. Bush's plummeting popularity, which is threatening their majorities in Congress--immigrant bashing is the trump card in this election.

"White suburban voters who voted for George Bush are disaffected now," Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio told the Washington Post. "Would I rather be talking about immigration reform with these voters or the war? Immigration reform or gasoline prices?"

The immigrant-bashers' vehicle is House Resolution (HR) 4437, proposed legislation that would turn the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants into aggravated felons overnight, make lawbreakers of anyone who assists them, and fund construction of a massive wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

While Democrats are mostly opposed the bill--named for its sponsor, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.)--some 36 Democrats voted for it last December.

Among them was Melissa Bean, a liberal who ousted longtime Republican Rep. Phil Crane in a suburban Chicago district in 2004. Besides supporting Sensenbrenner's draconian measure, she backed an effort by leading immigrant-basher Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Col.) that would have denied federal funds to any local or state agencies that refused to share information with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"Spooked that immigration may become a GOP base-energizing issue, much like gay marriage in 2004, [the Democrats] are torn between trying to protect themselves against charges that they are soft on the issue and trying to seize the opportunity to attract Hispanic voters," noted Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post.

Then there are Democratic Govs. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Bill Richardson of New Mexico--a man of Mexican descent--who last year declared "states of emergency" on the border to try to outflank Republicans to the right.

Opportunistic me-too Democrats are nothing new. What's striking about the immigration debate, however, is just how many liberals are on the wrong side.

For example, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman argued that immigration is a chief reason for low and falling wages of U.S. workers--though as an economist, he should know that the real reasons are the employers' 30-year war on organized labor and the fact that corporate profits now grab their highest share of national income in 40 years.

Then there's Thom Hartmann, a "progressive" who's eager to put a left-wing wrapping around the right's anti-immigrant agenda.

"Progressives fought--and many lost their lives in the battle--to limit the pool of 'labor hours' available to the Robber Barons from the 1870s through the 1930s and thus created the modern middle class," the Air America radio host wrote for the Web site. Progressives, Hartmann added, also "limited labor-hours by supporting laws that would regulate immigration into the United States to a small enough flow that it wouldn't dilute the unionized labor pool."

So is Hartmann retroactively endorsing the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, backed by some union leaders at the time as a means to keep low-cost "Coolie labor" out of the U.S., even after Chinese workers helped build the transcontinental railroad?

Is he nostalgic for the old American Federation of Labor, led by Samuel Gompers, which excluded Blacks and immigrants from craft unions in the early 20th century and set back the growth of organized labor for more than a generation?

In fact, it was immigrant workers--such as the Haymarket martyrs--who led the movement for the eight-hour day in 1886. And immigrants and their children were central to the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s, as unions organized mass production industries for the first time.

Today, one of the most important developments in the immigrant rights movement is organized labor's explicit rejection of its anti-immigrant legacy. Significantly, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney criticized the "compromise" legislation before Congress for creating a guest-worker program that would virtually eliminate workers' right to join a union. Immigrant workers are, in fact, the greatest source of new union members as labor struggles to reverse its decline.

The Democratic Party, however, will put pressure on labor and various immigrant rights groups to line up behind "compromise" measures brokered by party leaders like Kennedy. Kennedy was allowed to speak at the mass immigrant rights protest in Washington on April 10--even though he also was central to the terrible "compromise" that would have created three tiers of immigrants.

There can be no compromising on justice. The only acceptable immigration reform is an unconditional amnesty for all undocumented immigrants, and opportunities for citizenship for those who want it.

Leading figures in the new movement support Kennedy on the basis that guest-worker programs are preferable to criminalization--and that demanding amnesty for undocumented workers is unrealistic.

In some ways, the discussion parallels the debate in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when some argued for moderate politics and tactics in order to maintain the support of the supposedly friendly federal government against the state governments controlled by open racists.

In the end, it took repeated, determined mobilizations to pressure Congress to finally outlaw second-class citizenship in the old segregated South--and establish the equality before the law promised in the Constitution.

That history should serve as a lesson for today's movement, which has mobilized on a wider scale and in a more concentrated period than even the civil rights struggle.

The U.S. economy has always depended on immigrant labor, and it will continue to do so. The question is whether this will take place with employers able to use guest-worker laws to keep workers in low-wage jobs without union rights--or with the equality achieved by the struggles of previous generations of immigrants.

Equality and genuine amnesty will be achieved not through the compromises pushed by the politicians, but by more mobilization and protest.

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