What happened to immigration reform?

Commentary

The Senate last month failed to pass the Bush-backed immigration reform plan, known as the “grand bargain.” It’s now widely reported that any immigration reform measures will have to wait until after the 2008 elections.

The “grand bargain” bill was fatally flawed from the get-go. The president, the Republican right and their big business backers are the main culprits preventing any comprehensive approach. If nothing is achieved on immigration reform, it will be mainly due to their greed and reactionary politics.

Bush insisted on not only a guest worker program, but the worst guest worker program that a twisted mind could invent. It would have immigrant families bouncing back and forth between their countries of origin and the United States, with no rights to do anything but work themselves half to death for unscrupulous U.S. employers, and then be sent back “home” to starve in their old age.

Bush and his ilk were not even willing to allow guest workers, after a time in the program, to get points toward permanent legal residency. A moderate amount of exploitation would not do; they had to have a program that would drain the last drop of blood from the guest worker.

The result of this was that the AFL-CIO and many other labor and community organizations came out against the bill, and others were less than enthusiastic in supporting it.

As the Republican far-right was working full blast against any kind of immigration reform, and progressive forces were also against this bill or at best lukewarm about it, the thing was doomed.

Much of the Republican Party has decided that they are going to try in 2008 what did not work too well for them in 2006 — to use immigrant-bashing to distract the attention of the voters from the Iraq war and soaring corporate profits. So they have spent their time conjuring up a bogey of rampaging immigrants “destroying the fabric of this country.”

This pulled the whole debate on immigration sharply to the right. It changed it from a debate on “Immigrants: good or bad for the country?” to “Immigrants: How can we crush them before they eat our babies?” And every kind of misinformation was used from discredited sources such as the Center for Immigration Studies, without any challenge in the mainstream media.

The talking heads, or rather, the ranting, raving, frothing-at-the-mouth heads, on cable TV news and talk radio were allowed to poison the airwaves night after night with racist diatribes based on false information about immigrants as bringers of crime, disease and terrorism.

The media conglomerates let them do this without any concern for social responsibility, without the thought crossing their minds that this could actually lead to acts of violence against immigrants. These ranters sold the sponsors’ products, so it did not matter if they were morphing into neo-Nazis before our eyes and ears.

The Democrats can’t be let off the hook. In the first place, it seems clear that working out the “grand bargain” behind closed doors was a mistake. The Senate’s regular committee process should have been used, in which anti-immigrant arguments could have been discredited and pro-immigrant arguments gotten across.

With one side screaming that immigrants are murderous invaders, and the other (many Democrats) not really challenging this, no wonder a lot of people are confused.

And we can’t let ourselves in the immigrant rights movement off the hook either. The huge marches of last year should have been transformed into a massive movement of political pressure on Congress and the White House, and also of education of the public on the subject of immigration. Instead, the momentum was wasted in infighting among movement factions.

While the anti-immigrant lobby worked night and day to pressure members of Congress, the pro-immigration forces were strangely muted, as if they thought that the mass marches alone would convince Congress to do what they wanted.

This shows lack of political sophistication, because precisely what the politicians fear about masses marching in the street is that they might vote them out of office. Already, Republicans are seeing shifts among Latino voters because of GOP immigrant-bashing and anti-Latino racism.

We should not accept the idea that the struggle for immigrant rights has to wait until after the 2008 elections. We have to get back on the streets and in the legislatures, with demands for a moratorium on the raids and deportations, and for action in Congress to pass multifaceted progressive immigration reform that will respect the rights of immigrant and non-immigrant workers and their families.