When House Republicans supported HR 4437, they were hoping they’d found the wedge issue they needed to improve electoral prospects for the 2006 mid-term elections. This has proven to be a gross miscalculation.
By passing legislation that would automatically make felons of an estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants, they blissfully ignored that those 12 million “illegal aliens” are the parents, children, nieces and cousins of yet millions more legal residents. Or, as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina put it: “If we tell millions of people that we will make felons of their grandparents, we (the GOP) will suffer mightily.”
It is no coincidence that the most remarkable aspect of the mass mobilizations in March and April, besides their overwhelming size, was the impressive participation of young people, particularly high school students.
Republican strategists seem to have read the polls to mean a majority of legal immigrants would favor restraining illegal immigration, but never considered to dig a little deeper. The most vocal supporters for unleashing massive state repression on immigrant communities all come from states where immigrant numbers have been growing in recent years, but are still short of the definitive clout they wield in larger states where immigrants and their descendents comprise large slices of the population.
Had Reps. Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Tom Tancredo (R-CO) spoken to their fellow Republican governors of California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois before acting on their xenophobic whims, they would certainly have understood that this was indeed a very bad idea. Even Gov. Schwarzenegger—who denied driver licenses to undocumented immigrants and loudly praised the Minutemen’s foolish vigilantism—opposed HR 4437 on the grounds that the U.S. rounding up and deporting 11 million people is an unrealistic expectation.
We can only guess that even the most ardent xenophobes will agree that such a proposition would be unenforceable, even if we were ready to bring the troops home from Iraq and deploy them in San Bernardino, Tucson, South Chicago, Queens, etc. Giving Republicans the benefit of the doubt (i.e., they might be evil, but not stupid), one has to consider that HR 4437 was a bluff by House Republicans to force the President and the Senate to deal with an issue that everyone agreed needed confronting sooner or later.
The unexpected outcome was the outraged response of immigrant, particularly Latino, communities. What began as a series of small demonstrations and rallies by the usual handful of immigrant rights activists snowballed into the largest mass demonstrations that some American cities have ever seen.
HR 4437 managed to alienate not only immigrants, but has also split two key constituencies that together have ensured the GOP’s series of electoral victories: business interests and religious people. Businesses using large pools of unskilled labor would lose their workers, and pastors across the nation would see their flocks ravaged by deportation and broken families.
As the legislative debate continues on Capitol Hill, and ever growing mass mobilizations reach the streets, it seems unlikely that HR 4437 will enlist enough supporters in the Senate to pass a similar bill. Nevertheless, even the most “liberal” measures being presented as alternatives would come short of guaranteeing the rights of all immigrants to have a shot at citizenship, instead establishing arbitrary elegibility thresholds.
No matter what kind of legislation we end up with, likely results will increase repressive measures along the border, as well as limit the ability of immigrants to challenge their detention and deportation in courts. It will also pretend to be “definitive”—since the last time immigration laws were subject to major reform was in 1986. Whatever law we end up with, it will allow some to stay permanently and force others to leave or yet again become “illegal”. It will also intend to prevent others from coming in the future.
But even as the immigrant movement remains united in its demand for a full amnesty and equal rights, gearing up for more powerful mobilizations, no one is yet challenging increased border militarization, its body count and negative impact on everyone’s civil rights. Nor has there been any talk about the root causes of the recent surge in immigration: corporate globalization and “free” trade policies.
Until those factors are also figured into the equation, the migrating flow from the impoverished global South will continue, no matter how tall the fence is built.