January 4, 2008

2007: Immigration Still Major Issue for Latinos

The massive but peaceful pro-immigrant marches that brought the plight of the country’s estimated 14 million undocumented immigrants into full public view in 2006 all but vanished in 2007, but that did not mean the issue disappeared. To the contrary, immigration remained a major national issue — in some polls, Americans listed it as one of their top three concerns — thanks to the presidential campaign, radio and television talk shows, and the inability in Congress to come up with a solution.

Immigration, for the second year in a row, was a major issue for Latinos. It appeared that the middle ground that had been forged between the White House and U.S. Senate leaders broke down once immigration reform opponents started mouthing the ‘A’ word: Amnesty. Although the proposed legislation was not identical to the broad amnesty plan President Ronald Reagan successfully pushed for in 1986, opponents quickly pounced on a piece of the legislation that would have provided a path to legal residency for undocumented immigrants who paid a fine, returned to their home country and waited at the back of the line.

“It’s a difficult piece of legislation,” Bush told reporters in May. He called on Congress to display “the political courage necessary to get the bill to my desk as quickly as possible.”

Less than a month later, the bill collapsed.

About two-thirds of the Senate’s Republicans and almost one-third of Democrats voted to kill the immigration overhaul on June 28. The carefully crafted legislation had been criticized by both sides.

“I doubt if there’s the political will for that,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a supporter of the 761-page bill that would have allowed undocumented children to gain citizenship and provided for a guest-worker program.

Bush, who sent Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to lobby support for the bill, expressed disappointment.

“Legal immigration is one of the top concerns of the American people, and Congress’ failure to act on it is a disappointment,” Bush said. “A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn’t find a common ground. It didn’t work.”

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., thought otherwise, describing the defeat as “a great vote not for any individual senator, but for the American people.”

Josh Hoyt of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, summed up the feelings of many pro-immigrant organizations during a July conference call: “People are talking quite a bit. If this backlash narrative took root in America, then what is the story that needs to be told so that elected officials can start to look at intelligent solutions instead of just reacting so that the broad American middle will be with us?”

No-match letters

The federal government did not waste much time in responding to the immigration reform defeat. In August, the Department of Homeland security sent out letters to employers warning them that they would have to fire workers with questionable Social Security numbers. The rule would require employers to fire within 60 days people whose name or Social Security number on their W-2 did not match the federal database.

“The package of measures ... will result in the racial profiling of all working Latinos,” said Janet Murguía, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza. “In effect, what these measures will do is impose a substantial burden on a subset of our citizens which is based entirely on the color of their skin, their accent, or their name.”

Farmers in the San Joaquín Valley, whose workforce is about 70 percent undocumented, reacted with anger.

“It all started with the stupidity and ignorance of Congress,” said Pat Ricchiuti, a grower with P-R Farms. “It will only lead to chaos and confusion.”

A San Francisco judge on Oct. 10 blocked the no-match plan from taking place, but federal officials announced in December it would appeal the ruling.

DREAM Act fails

Pro-immigrant supporters thought that bipartisan support for the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students who met certain requirements to gain legal status would allow them to pass such legislation. The legislation had been introduced almost 10 years ago but had never made it to a final vote.

On Oct. 24, that measure also died despite a 52-44 favorable vote in the U.S. Senate. The measure needed 60 votes to advance. Democrats said the bill would have been “a critical first step to address our nation’s broken immigration system.”

Republicans countered the bill was a first step to amnesty.

Sweeps hit areas

Perhaps spurred by public reaction to undocumented immigration, the Department of Homeland Security began enforcing regulations at worksites that employed large numbers of undocumented laborers. The raids, which critics said split families and focused primarily on people who looked Latino, also hit California.

“I think the Bush administration is demonstrating it is willing to enforce the law, and it will continue,” said Cecilia Muñoz of the National Council of La Raza. “Unfortunately, we will continue to see continued enforcement actions across the country.”

Local communities take action

The federal government’s failure to act on immigration led to a tidal wave of measures by cities and counties throughout the United States to try to stem the flow of undocumented immigration into their communities. Cities in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Texas came up with laws that restricted public use by undocumented residents, and prohibiting landlords from renting to them. Most of those measures were tossed out by courts.

In the San Joaquín Valley, Fresno Mayor Alan Autry took the step of coming up with a resolution calling for the federal government to put an end to immigration sweeps. Although the Fresno City Council failed to support him, city councils in Mendota, Parlier, Orange Cove and others in Fresno County came up with their own resolutions.

Driver’s licences backfire

When New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer, a Democrat, introduced a proposal that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license, the furor even caused presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to stumble. Stung by a poll showing 70 percent of New York residents opposed the plan, Spitzer withdrew his proposal in November, even though it had won the blessing of the Department of Homeland Security.

“It does not take a stethoscope to hear the pulse of New Yorkers on this topic,” said Spitzer.

Elsewhere, some cities did take pro-undocumented immigrant steps. San Franciso and New Haven, Conn., came up with identification cards that undocumented residents could use for certain services, like library use.

Activist gets deported

It was not a good year for Elvira Arellano, the single mother whose efforts to avoid deportation put a face on the immigration issue. In August, after leaving her sanctuary inside a Chicago church, Arellano traveled to Los Ángeles where she made several appearances calling for an end to immigration sweeps. A day later, she was arrested and deported.

“They were in a hurry to deport me because they saw that I was threatening to mobilize and organize the people to fight for legalization,” said Arellano. “I have a fighting spirit and I’m going to continue fighting.”

Talk turned the tide

Conservative talk show hosts like Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs drew plenty of support when they railed against immigration reform efforts that failed to focus on border security first and foremost. The answer to the undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. was for complete deportation. They are credited for the flood of calls to Washington, D.C. that effectively killed the U.S. Senate’s immigration package.

“I’m sure Senators on both sides of the aisle are being pounded by these talk-radio people who don’t even know what’s in the bill,” Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., told The Washington Post. In an interview with The New York Times, he said, “Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem.”

Reprinted from Vida en el Valle

Return to the Frontpage