A stealth legislative assault on immigrants

While the media report on allegations about Russia and the GOP health care fiasco, two anti-immigrant bills are quietly advancing in Congress, reports Ryan de Laureal.

Demonstrating for sanctuary campuses in Virginia  (Scott Elmquist)Demonstrating for sanctuary campuses in Virginia (Scott Elmquist)

"WHILE REPUBLICANS fan the flames of hate and bigotry, Democrats will continue to fight for the comprehensive immigration reform our nation needs," declared Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in a statement released as House Republicans quietly passed two right-wing anti-immigrant bills on June 29.

What Pelosi forgot to add was that over two dozen of her own party members had also just voted for one of the Republican bills--and if they make it through the Senate without the Democrats pulling out all the stops to challenge them, Trump and the Republican Party would achieve a significant legislative victory, at a time when such wins are few and far between.

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ONE OF the bills, Kate's Law, increases the already harsh criminal penalties for undocumented border crossers, allowing for jail sentences ranging from two to 20 years for those who have been previously deported, and for others who may have minor offences on their record.

The bill is named after Kathryn Steinle, a woman who was killed in 2015 after a gun was accidentally discharged by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco's Embarcadero district.

Because San Francisco is a sanctuary city that limits cooperation with federal immigration authorities, Steinle's case became a flashpoint for many on the right who seek to justify attacks against all immigrants regardless of criminal background.

Steinle's family has denounced their daughter's name being invoked in the law, and her father made clear that the family "didn't have a stance against sanctuary cities."

Nonetheless, Trump has highlighted cases such as Steinle's in order to create an inflated national paranoia about immigrant crime--during his election campaign and now, through his newly created anti-immigrant propaganda agency VOICE (Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement).

In total, 24 Democrats in the House of Representatives joined Republicans in voting for Kate's Law.

The second bill, the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act, would make good on Trump's promise to punish sanctuary cities by blocking federal funding to them. The ACLU had this to say about the legislation:

The No Sanctuary for Criminals Act would force state and local law enforcement agencies to violate the Fourth Amendment by requiring them to imprison people without due process or probable cause at the request of federal immigration agents. By authorizing officials to hold immigrants without a bond hearing, the bill would allow them to be wrongly incarcerated for years during court proceedings. The legislation would also withhold millions of dollars in federal grant money to the over 600 jurisdictions nationwide that abide by the Fourth Amendment.

While it was less popular with Democrats than Kate's Law, the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act still managed to pick up three Democratic supporters.

Interestingly, it wasn't just Democrats in Trump-leaning districts who backed the bills.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the three Democrats who supported the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act, hails from Texas' 28th Congressional District, one of the most reliably left-leaning districts in Texas, comprised mostly of counties along the U.S.-Mexico border, with apopulation that is nearly 80 percent Hispanic.

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THAT A number of Democrats are joining with their Republican peers to support Trump's anti-immigrant policies should come as no surprise.

In 2006, when Republicans introduced the Secure Fence Act--the Bush-era precursor to Trump's border wall, which established militarized surveillance and barriers along most of the southern U.S. border--most of the Senate's Democratic Party leadership, including then-Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, voted in favor.

As president, Obama built on the xenophobic immigration policies of the Bush era, ramping up deportations to unprecedented levels and increasing the amount of border patrol officers. In 2011, Obama boasted, "we now have more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any time in our history."

In the same speech, Obama enthusiastically detailed how his administration went "above and beyond" to give right-wing Republicans "all the stuff they asked for" in the hopes that a few of them would return the favor by breaking with their party to pass the Democrats' DREAM Act.

The strategy was a total failure: the Democrats under Obama gave the right everything they wanted and got nothing in return.

The DREAM Act, which would have provided a conditional path to legal residency for some undocumented minors, failed to pass the Republican-majority Senate, and Obama's attempts to implement portions of the bill by executive authority, with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) programs, were either blocked early on (in the case of DAPA) or are now under threat of being reversed.

In a meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on July 12, the Trump administration made clear that millions of immigrants who are currently protected under the DACA and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) programs could have their status revoked and face deportation.

In a press release, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) stated, "Trump, [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions and [Department of Homeland Security Secretary] Kelly want to take 800,000 DREAMers with DACA and hundreds of thousands with TPS who are registered with the government and in compliance with the law and make them into criminals, felons and deportees in the next few months."

But it remains to be seen whether Democrats will concretely oppose the administration's anti-immigrant assault--or whether the party's historic appeals to the right, pioneered with Bill Clinton's "Third Way" political strategy in the 1990s, will continue.

The purpose of this failed strategy, based on a bipartisan, neoliberal economic consensus, is to court right-wing Republican voters by adopting elements of the opposing party's platform. So long as Democratic leaders stick to this way of doing things, it seems likely that a number of Democrats will continue to lend their backing to Trump.

And if Democratic Party leaders in the Senate decide that opposing the two current anti-immigrant bills isn't a priority, it's possible they could pass with the support of a few Democratic senators, too.

If that happens, then Trumpism will be that much closer to becoming a bipartisan political project.