Congressional immigrant bashers on the move

THE HALLS of Congress are filling up again with proposed legislation that scapegoats immigrants.

A bill in the House cosponsored by almost a third of its members is called the SAVE (Secure America through Verification and Enforcement) Act. It would increase spending on border security and require employers to verify workers' immigration status through a government database.

A collection of Republican senators, meanwhile, have assembled a raft of at least 11 enforcement bills, including one that would require jail time for undocumented workers detained while crossing the border; another to require everyone in the U.S. to communicate in English when dealing with federal agencies; and a third that would dock states 10 percent of their highway funding if they pass laws allowing the undocumented to get driver's licenses.

The Senate effort is viewed by the media as an election-year stunt--an attempt by Republicans desperate to exploit the one issue they think will help them turn out supporters in November.

But the House proposal is a different matter. It was introduced by North Carolina Democrat Heath Shuler, a freshman representative who won a seat in a traditionally Republican district during the 2006 election landslide for the Democrats. Shuler, the Democratic leadership's poster child for its strategy of co-opting Republican positions to appeal to so-called "swing voters," has 47 House Democrats cosponsoring his bill--not to mention Republicans like anti-immigrant bigot-in-chief Tom Tancredo.

So far, the House leadership says it will block the SAVE Act unless provisions are added to give the undocumented a chance at citizenship and make it easier for immigrant families to unite.

But don't count on it. Last year, Rahm Emanuel, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was pressing for the Shuler proposal to come to a vote--so lawmakers in conservative districts could be on the record voting in favor.

The consequences of the Democrats' "strategy" of retreating before every anti-immigrant initiative have been grim.

Because nobody in Washington challenges the right wing's lies, the debate has been pulled toward them. The border militarization and employer verification proposals in Shuler's bill would have been considered schemes of the right-wing fringe a decade ago--now, they're part of the bipartisan consensus.

The impact beyond Washington is entirely predictable--according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate crimes committed against Latinos are on the increase, as are the number of hate groups overall, especially in border states like California, Arizona and Texas.

There's no excuse for the Democrats' shameful position on immigration. They have sanctioned a hysteria of scapegoating that is taking a toll on the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the U.S.