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WHAT WE THINK
Anti-immigrant "reform" legislation falls apart in Congress
Good riddance to a rotten deal

June 30, 2006 | Page 3

IMMIGRATION LEGISLATION in Congress--George W. Bush's top domestic priority of this year--is all but dead.

That's great news for the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S. who faced outright criminalization under legislation passed by the House--or, under a proposed Senate compromise, a three-tiered system that would have given some immigrants a dubious shot at citizenship, while forcing others into a guest-worker program with substandard rights.

It was House Republicans who told Bush they were "effectively sidelining--and in the view of some congressional aides probably killing" any chance of immigration legislation this year, the New York Times reported June 25. This move, along with an effort of some House GOP members to bar renewal of the Voting Rights Act, is part of a systematic effort to whip up racism and hatred to maximize right-wing turnout in the fall elections.

The Republicans are seeking votes by screaming about an "invasion" of "illegal aliens," a message that will be promoted at a series of hearings--really, anti-immigrant hate rallies--set for states along the U.S.-Mexican border this summer.

As a New York Times editorial put it, "What the Republicans really want to do is take the Senate bill on a perp walk through the red states, relishing the catcalls denouncing it as 'amnesty' and using the hearings to milk whatever anti-immigrant resentment they can find or drum up for the benefit of their candidates."

True enough. But the Times supports the anti-immigrant legislation passed by the Senate, known as Hagel-Martinez, after its two main sponsors.

Hagel-Martinez includes many of the repressive features of the House legislation, including funding for an expanded wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, tougher enforcement measures and the division of the undocumented into three categories.

Those in the U.S. more than five years would become eligible for citizenship after another six years--and only then if they could meet various requirements, such as paying fines and learning English. More recent immigrants to the U.S. would have to leave, and many could only re-enter as part of a guest-worker program that would deprive them of basic rights.

The compromise was so bad that even many immigrant rights groups tied to the Democratic Party rejected it--as did the more grassroots groups that organized the mass marches and May Day boycotts for immigrant rights.

On the right, House Republicans calculate that their proposed legislation to make felons out of 12 million undocumented immigrants is more appealing to conservative voters.

The attempt to block renewal of the Voting Rights Act is connected to this immigrant-bashing--both are part of a systematic effort to whip up racism as an electoral strategy for the midterm elections in November.

Won by the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act originally required eight Southern states to clear any changes in voting laws with the federal government.

Sections of the law are due to expire in 2007, and have been opposed by two Georgia Republicans, Reps. Lynn Westmoreland and Charlie Norwood. Members of the Texas delegation in the House have made similar threats to block renewal of the law.

The Republican hostility to the Voting Rights Act stems from the 1960s, when the party absorbed the segregationist white Democrats in the South and became the dominant party. With a large African American population in the South, however, the Republicans fear that their control could be overcome by Blacks voting Democratic in large numbers.

Spencer Overton, a law professor and author of the new book Cheating Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression, argues that efforts to gut the Voting Rights Act are aimed at reversing the gains of African Americans and Latinos.

He notes that in the five years following the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as many African Americans in the South had registered to vote as in the previous 100 years--and that the number of Black elected officials in the South jumped from just 72 in 1965 to nearly 5,000 in 1993. And of course, the disenfranchisement of Blacks in Florida in the disputed 2000 presidential election showed that violation of African American voting rights is still commonplace in the South.

Today, immigrants as well as African Americans are targets of the attack on the Voting Rights Act. House Republicans object to a 1975 amendment to the law that would protect "language minorities," including Latino immigrants, Alaskan natives and others.

"The 'language minority' formulation was, in effect, a means of redefining race to include other groups who had been victims of discrimination," noted author Alex Keyssar in his book The Right to Vote. The change was immediate. The number of Latino elected officials in Arizona, California, Florida, New Mexico and Texas rose from 1,280 in 1973 to 3,677 in 1991.

It's no accident that Norwood and Westmoreland are at the forefront of targeting the Voting Rights Act. Their home state of Georgia, with its long history of violating African American voting rights, is now at the forefront of passing anti-immigrant legislation as more Latinos move into the South.

The right's attack highlights the common interests of African Americans and Latinos in the fight for immigrant rights--and joining forces against the politics of racial backlash.

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