A Bill Only Bush Could Love

April 10, 2008

Once again, a proposed immigration reform bill has been killed in Congress. Rejected by a range of political actors even more disparate, if that were possible, than the bizarre coalition of interests that was prepared to give it critical support, the bill effectively died unloved by all but its chief advocate, George W. Bush. This is no surprise. The Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Reform Act of 2007 represented perhaps the best last opportunity for Bush to fulfill even one campaign promise or to leave behind a single piece of legislation that might support his claim to have accomplished something of value in the course of two terms in office.

The bill itself was a nasty affair, even more mean-spirited and punitive than the proposals debated in Congress in the spring of 2006, proposals that provoked reactions ranging from disappointment to outrage and brought more than 1 million protesters, mostly Latino, into the streets of cities across the United States.

The complex, book-length draft presented to Congress in May and June proposed measures that were even more unworkable with respect to employers’ responsibilities and liability, more unrealistic in their efforts to wall off the United States from intruders, and much harder on the immigrants themselves. In a sense, the current version was destined to please no one except those who have no direct interest in the matter and who simply want to see “something done” by a federal government they believe has allowed an unacceptable situation to develop and persist.

The bill’s most progressive advocates, including Senator Ted Kennedy and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, argued that having a law in place is preferable to the legal limbo of the current situation. Progressive support also came from unions representing farm workers, service employees, and hotel, restaurant, and apparel workers—sectors where immigrants cluster.

But in a manner that has long made the immigration debate so surreal, progressives concerned with immigrant rights found themselves linked to employer associations that seek a larger, more reliable pool of cheap labor, organizations like the Essential Worker Immigrant Coalition, which lobbies Congress and the White House on behalf of fast-food chains, the hotel industry, slaughterhouses and meatpacking firms, nursing homes, and agribusiness. The bill’s opponents included labor unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which decried its proposed guest-worker program as likely to drive down wages, benefits, and health and safety standards for all workers.

Xenophobes and racists both supported and opposed the bill. Those who supported it were enthusiastic about its promise of higher, longer fences, a “beefed up” Border Patrol, more apprehensions, more severe penalties for those caught, and reduced opportunity for legal residents to sponsor the migration of family members. But the coalition that ultimately killed the bill was strongly supported by other xenophobes and racists for whom even the grudging opportunity it offered for immigrants to gain temporary work visas or permanent legal status seemed too generous.

Of course, there was little in this legislation to inspire hope in those at the center of the discussion: the undocumented immigrants who live without rights, even as they perform a range of essential work that underpins the comfortable functioning of U.S. society. Even so, many immigrants allowed themselves to believe that the illogic of their situation would become clear to members of the dominant society. Perhaps the new legislation, many thought, would open a way for them out of a shadowy world where they live in fear of apprehension and deportation and remain vulnerable to every conceivable form of exploitation.

Now the best hope for those without documents lies in the vastly increased organizational activity of immigrants who hold U.S. citizenship. It also lies in the measurable movement of others who qualify for citizenship, but had not thought to apply for it until the anti-immigrant barrage pushed them to seek a stronger voice in politics by gaining voting rights in their adopted land.

Judith Adler Hellman teaches at York University, Toronto. She is the author of The World of Mexican Migrants: The Rock and the Hard Place (The New Press, forthcoming 2008).


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