March 28, 2008

Immigration Issue Won’t Die

By Juan Esparza Loera
Vida en el Valle

“The atmosphere is clearly very toxic on this issue. The political perception is that there is a strong base that really, really hated the bill. This was really a vote about politics and about race. There is tremendous anger that Congress has left the (immigrant) community exposed. They try to use this issue for political gain.”

Cecilia Muñoz, vice president, Office of Research, Advocacy and Legislation with the National Council of the Raza, reacting on Aug. 3, 2007, to the collapse of the U.S. Senate bill on comprehensive immigration reform.

Other than the Iraq war and the presidential primaries, no other issue has generated as much media attention — and divisiveness — throughout the country like immigration reform.

After last summer’s collapse of a comprehensive immigration reform bill crafted by U.S. Senate Democrats and Republicans in conjunction with the White House, many political experts believed the issue would not be a driving force in this year’s elections. They were wrong.

Although Republican presidential candidates who made undocumented immigration a centerpiece of their campaigns — like Mitt Romney and Tom Tancredo — have become yesterday’s news, immigration remains a potent lightning rod. The issue of how to deal with an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants and a porous border with México refused to fade away.

On March 5, Senate Republicans introduced a package of 14 immigration-related bills ranging from making English the country’s official language to ensuring that undocumented immigrants cannot obtain credit cards. Democrats have kept the legislation from getting a vote, which some believe would fall into the Republicans’ gameplan of creating an election issue.

So, what makes the politics of immigration reform a hot potato?

“Immigration has always been a controversial issue because, like a mirror, it reflects collective values we have as a nation as well as individual citizens’ diverse perceptions and aspirations for our future,” Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said in an e-mail interview with Vida en el Valle. “Immigration crosses social, economic and humanitarian spheres — all of them with political components.”

Craig, who is not seeking re-election, has been a driving force on immigration legislation, especially the AgJOBS bill and other pro-farmworker legislation.

UC Merced professor Simón Weffer-Elizondo believes the ability of using immigration as a “wedge issue” makes it convenient for politicians.

”Both the left and the right, typified that way rather than Republican and Democrat, fall on punitive versus accommodating,” said Weffer-Elizondo. “Some of the rhetoric in the legislation has been about punishing immigrants without taking into account other issues.”

Weffer-Elizondo, whose mother is Mexican and father is Venezuelan, said, “wedge issues drive the rhetoric.” He is conducting research on the impact the 2005 massive rallies and protests by pro-immigrant groups had on the issue.

Vida en el Valle interviewed Craig and Weffer-Elizondo to get a deeper look at the immigration issue and how politics can hurt or harm debate on the issue.

Q. What is the main reason the Senate plan on comprehensive immigration reform failed?

Craig: “I believe the relatively small number of opponents were extraordinarily loud in expressing their disagreement and, in doing so, they drowned out the serious dialogue needed to work out the complex details of the bill. National polls repeatedly showed that a significant majority of the American people favored the principles embodied in that legislation, but opponents tended to reject our proposals without even listening to what we had to offer.”

Weffer-Elizondo: “I think it is an issue of political will. It has a lot to do with the misunderstanding of immigration and what its impacts are. We look at limits on access to emergency health care to children of immigrants. That is a rather short-sighted position.”

Q. Some people say the bills introduced recently by Senate Republicans is an attempt to create a wedge issue for election purposes. Do you agree or disagree?

Craig: “I did not participate in the creation of those bills, so I wouldn’t want to speculate on motives. My concern is whether the introduction of those proposals will prevent further action on this issue.”

Weffer-Elizondo: “I don’t know if it will work. If you look at (Republican presidential nominee) John McCain, he has not been with the more ideological-minded Republicans. He’s from Arizona and has a more pragmatic view of the issue. The great irony for me in this, is that in 1986 the amnesty bill was actually signed by (Ronald) Reagan, who is the champion of all conservatives.”

Q. Will immigration reform have to be done on a step-by-step basis, or can it be done in a comprehensive manner in the next two years?

Craig: “They say you can’t go about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So clearly, something needs to change because the comprehensive reform package we tried didn’t pass. It seems unlikely that the current Congress would move further along those lines, unless members change their minds in response to the country’s economic crisis or some other compelling need.

“But the makeup of Congress changes significantly every two years, and the (presidential) administration will change next year, no matter who wins the presidency — so it is certainly possible that the new perspectives may find a way to overcome our current obstacles.”

Weffer-Elizondo: “The intellectual approach is to do it comprehensively. In the current political climate, piece by piece may be the most effective way; but, it leaves too many issues unaddressed. If it deals only with employment, how do you look at education? It takes more than one bill to be effective.”

Q. If you were to craft a sensible bill, without any thought to politics or public opinion, what would be the three key elements you would include in comprehensive immigration reform?

Craig: “I have often referred to it as a three-legged stool: Border security, reforming our guestworker programs, and addressing the workers already in our country, in order to protect our economy, strengthen the security of our country and its citizens, and deal fairly with both citizens and non-citizens alike.”

Q. Do public marches and rallies help or hinder?

Craig: “I will always encourage people to express their views. That said, I don’t believe the marches helped in moving some members of the opposition to the support column; there is a possibility it might have had the opposite effect. More shouting might not be the best way to change hearts and minds.”

Weffer-Elizondo: “They are very positive. Unless there are large numbers of individuals voicing their grievances and concerns, change won’t happen. Look at the women’s right to vote, the civil rights movement, or César Chávez creation of the United Farm Workers. Those things don’t become part of society’s mind unless someone exercises their rights and opinions. The impact (of pro-immigrant rallies) remains to be seen.”

Q. ‘Amnesty’ has become a dirty word in trying to deal with the undocumented in this country without deporting them. Is that an appropriate description of those plans?

Craig: “No, it’s not appropriate. It’s not even accurate. Amnesty is what was given in 1986. Nobody is proposing that today. The recent initiatives we brought to the table were not an easy, paved road. They included standards that needed to be met and privileges that had to be earned, stressing the development of characteristics we value and want to see in new Americans.”

Weffer-Elizondo: “What has happened is the right has been able to corner the market on ‘amnesty’ and paint it as a negative thing. Immigrants really need to find a way to take control of the discourse.”

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