Democrats and Republicans are staking our hard immigration positions and digging in their heels over an issue that is bound to become a major part of US Presidential Elections 2008. There are deep ideological issues between the parties with Democrats offering a more humane and perhaps pragmatic approach to the problem and Republicans taking a hard-line “law and order” stance on the issue.
Somewhere in the middle is President George Bush who favors reengineering immigration reform in the guise of a cheap labor procurement program. To date the Republican calls for tougher border security and immigration law enforcement is held up in the Congressional debate because of the Democratic demands for a more far-reaching and comprehensive solution.
The impracticality of rounding up and deporting over 11 million undocumented immigrants, not to mention the huge cost that this would entail, and the manpower and jail space needed to carry this out – if it were at all feasible and possible – has pushed President Bush on the ropes arguing for a more sensitive and humane solution. He walks a thin line between the rabid Republican cabal in both the House and Senate who are advocating for far tougher crackdowns and law enforcement and the needs of his big corporate cronies who want to tap into an unfettered source of cheap, expendable labor.
Mr. Bush worries that America’s image abroad would be further tarnished by the public specter of a massive round up of the undocumented and the brutal dislocation and break up of families that this would entail. And too, erecting miles and miles of fences and walls also sends the wrong signal that America is fast becoming a garrison community. Still, it is virtually impossible to stop illegal immigration that for Mexico and Latin America is the direct result of US economic policies that created huge unemployment and internal social displacement.
At the core of the debate and the most serious issue is what constitutes amnesty for the undocumented. Democrats want to shy away from the world “amnesty” while seeking comprehensive immigration reform that provides some pathway for the undocumented – with a number of penalties and provisions – to eventual permanent resident status. Correspondingly, Republicans see this as amnesty and have taken the position that the undocumented have broken US immigration laws and should not be rewarded and that amnesty, no matter what its called – does just that.
Republicans say that placing the undocumented on a path to citizenship unfairly tinkers with the playing field since it acts against those who followed the law and are now waiting in line to regularize their status. Democrats view illegal immigrants as victims of America's laxity and are thus owed our sensitivity and some sort of non-criminal treatment. Republicans believe that America has been too soft on immigration and that the events of 9-11 justify a stronger, more proactive immigration regime.
In essence therefore Republicans see the undocumented as criminals rather than victims and lack the Democratic Party’s sensitivity on the issue. The more hard-line Republicans actually feel that they can kick out approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants and have advocated that the Bush Administration starts with half a million and see what happens.
So the bantering continues to go back and forth and becomes more and more confusing in the process. As a consequence the Senate debate on immigration produced a deeply flawed result that really was an attempt to appease the Republican hard-liners who are pushing a xenophobic agenda and some moderate Republicans and democrats who what to give the approximately 11 million undocumented some shot at becoming legal permanent residents.
This latter part can be described as good since it is a practical and realistic acknowledgement that the undocumented is not going anywhere and any punitive and heavy-handed enforcement will only drive them further and further underground with eventual disastrous consequences. And too, the conditions are very tough: a $5,000 fine, a long, protracted wait in line that includes the clearing of present immigration backlog and continuing to remain of good moral character.
It also requires that heads of households apply to their home countries to regularize their status – something that is impractical and will touch off a wave of undocumented suspicion that once they are “called” for interviews the possibility of not being allowed reentry into the United States is very real. This could also send the undocumented further underground and defeat the purpose of the program.
Finally, the proposal would eliminate several categories of family-based immigration that has long been at the core of US immigration policy. It would distribute green cards based on a point system that shifts the preference to those who have education and skills but not roots in the United States. By eroding the long-standing provision that citizens and legal permanent residents can sponsor family members the proposal seeks to appease the Republican hard-line who want to see America cut back on immigration – period.
The inherent danger in this aspect of the proposal is that no matter what one says and how it is sugar-coated the deal is to cherry-pick those immigrants that America wants while ignoring the fact that thousands of families will be split apart and that poorer immigrants will be unwelcome to America’s shores. Of course, this underpinning of selective immigration also suggests a lingering element of racism and discrimination since “brighter and better educated” immigrants will come from countries with skin color and racial kinship to white Americans.
Moreover, the issue of Mr. Bush’s “temporary worker” immigration program is really not immigration at all or a solution as to how to handle the 11 million undocumented in America today. As Mr. Bush and those Republicans that support him tell it this program would create a new underclass that will work for two years at a time and a maximum of six years but never be allowed to put down roots on American soil. Essentially, this deal offers a way into America to work and be exploited and to play by America’s rules while having the door slammed in their faces.