Bush speech falls flat: Border militarization dubbed lousy policy

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If President Bush thought he could mobilize his conservative base with anti-immigrant fear-mongering while still appearing “compassionate,” his efforts fell flat.

In his May 15 speech the president promised to send 6,000 National Guard troops to the Mexican border to provide support for the Border Patrol, as well as funds more high-tech border control mechanisms. Bush also promised sharp expansion of detention facilities for non-Mexican undocumented immigrants caught in the border region, plus allowing local police departments on the border to participate in immigration enforcement.

Without mentioning it by name, Bush hinted support for the current Senate bill that pushes a guest worker program with no labor rights. This program — backed by business interests — is seen as a way to undercut wages and labor rights for all.

Around the country, people who had marched in the streets for immigrant rights gathered in restaurants, social clubs and homes to watch the president’s speech. Most reacted with disappointment to talk of increased border militarization and a renewed push for a guest-worker program, with no concrete action on legalization. Full legalization, family reunification, civic participation and workplace rights are the key demands of the millions of immigrants and supporters who marched during recent months.

The United Farm Workers of America called the speech a “puppet show,” saying that millions who marched have expressed their growing concern on immigration reform. The solution, the union said, must include a “clear path to earned legalization for undocumented immigrants who are living and contributing to the U.S. economy.”

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said, “Reasoned border security is important, but it will not fix our broken immigration system.” He called for immigration reform that provides “protection of rights and standards” for all workers including the millions of undocumented workers.

Democrats and even some Republicans questioned the wisdom of straining the National Guard even further at a time when Iraq duty has it stretched thin already. President Bush is proposing “a military solution to break a political stalemate,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, in the official Democratic response. “It could turn into another long-term military deployment.”

While Durbin didn’t rule out using the National Guard for border issues, he said Bush’s plan “raises serious questions about the future of the National Guard” and its ability to train and to respond to national emergencies such as the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

Border governors expressed differing opinions: California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico’s Bill Richardson criticized the plan, but Arizona’s Janet Napolitano and Texas’ Rick Perry appeared to be more favorable.

The Mexican government said border militarization would stir up anti-U.S. feelings in that country, and indeed, Mexico’s political opposition strongly denounced the move.

Currently 10,060 border agents patrol the U.S.-Mexican border, while 980 agents patrol the U.S.-Canadian border, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Louis Velasquez, a representative of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese, which has been outspoken in its opposition to any laws that criminalize undocumented immigrants, said, “We will now be two friendly countries with a militarized border in between. Please tell me why you have to have soldiers to meet people who are coming over to get a job? They are not a danger.”

Many saw the speech as an election year attempt to appeal to the far-right wing of the Republican Party with the imprint of GOP puppetmaster Karl Rove.

Rep. Jesse Jackson (D-Ill.) said “Rove’s fingerprints” were all over it, especially in its “illegitimate” use of anti-immigrant fear. “Motivate the base! That’s the real message,” the congressman said. “This is because they fear Democrats could regain control of the House and Senate in November.”

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski said trying to “appease” the Republican far-right may be “good politics. But it’s lousy policy.”

Busloads of activists from at least 20 states were headed for Washington for several intensive days of lobbying and a May 17 immigrant rights rally on the National Mall called by We Are America Alliance, a loose coalition of churches, unions and other pro-immigrant groups.

The Senate is discussing the Hagel-Martinez compromise bill, now confusingly called the Specter Bill, S 2611. At least 30 amendments are scheduled for debate.

S 2611 faces strong opposition from the immigrant rights movement. The bill slices and dices undocumented immigrant communities so that only a small proportion would be eligible for citizenship or permanent residency.

Other problematic aspects of the bill are the creation of a national identity card and a large guest worker program with no enforceable labor safeguards.