Supporters of immigrants’ rights, who showed their strength by the mass marches during the spring, have mobilized to end the Republican right’s stranglehold on Congress and state governments in the elections this week. In this, they have the support of labor and many other sectors. As a recent declaration by People for the American Way, reflecting majority public opinion, puts it:
“We believe that all people are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights, and we support policies that open the pathway to citizenship, authentically ensure the safety of our citizens, genuinely protect our border, recognize the many meaningful contributions of immigrants in our country, and recognize the principle that basic human rights belong to everybody.”
The danger is evident. Around the country, right-wing Republicans have used attempts to pass local and state anti-immigrant laws as a mechanism to mobilize the conservative base and frighten voters into voting for the GOP. The Bush administration is playing up to the racist ultra-right, which has been loudly complaining of “nothing being done about illegal immigration,” by stepping up raids, arrests and deportations.
The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights is protesting government plans to make naturalization of immigrants even harder than it is already. The plan is to jack the fees up to as much as $800 per person from the present $400, ask more prying questions on the N-400 application form, and “improve” the citizenship test.
The current test seeks to determine if the person understands and reads English and knows a bit about U.S. history and government. The questions include some that are valid and others that are just silly. But it is clear that the efforts to “improve” this test will have the effect of raising the bar to citizenship higher, with more perfectionistic, but arbitrary, standards.
The effort to make it harder to become a citizen tacitly addresses the concern of right-wing “populists” that the United States is ceasing to be a “white man’s country,” by disenfranchising groups of people least likely to be able to jump through these new hoops. This is a modern version of the old “intelligence” tests that the South used to impose on Black voters (“how many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?”). State laws in Georgia, Missouri and Arizona that make it harder to vote have the same goal.
A few supporters of immigrant rights have fallen for the wrong idea that the Democrats and the Republicans are equally bad on immigration. They shun the slogan “Today we march, tomorrow we vote,” saying, “We don’t have anybody to vote for.” This is difficult to understand. The anti-immigrant legislative campaign was cooked up by the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives and the almost wholly Republican House Immigration Reform Caucus, chaired by the poisonous Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.). House Republicans were largely united behind their anti-immigrant thrust, while most Democrats voted against the worst bills and amendments. Senate Republicans too made sure that their final bill, S 2611, would include much repressive baggage (slipped into the draft by “moderate” Republican Sen. Arlen Specter) and would not even provide legalization for millions of undocumented.
We naturally wish for more courageous and consistent behavior from the Democrats, but to let the Republicans, the main instigators of anti-immigrant agitation, win by default because we can’t stomach the lesser sins of the Democrats, is illogical and self-defeating.
After the election, the immigrant rights movement has urgent tasks to take up. In the first place, it is possible that there will be a “lame duck” session of Congress in November, which may consider immigration bills, good and bad. And in the new Congress that will convene in January, we have to work to reverse the damage to immigrants’ rights caused by Republican demagogy, and fight to get legislation passed that will give the undocumented access to legalization and citizenship, remove obstacles to naturalization and restore due process rights to immigrants who are threatened with deportation. This will be a hard fight no matter who wins in November, but it will be easier if the Republicans are defeated.
Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist.