Immigrant Gap

Election '04

Blockbuster California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used his personal story and star power to deliver one message to the immigrants watching this week's Republican Convention: Immigration is still the stuff of dreams. Tom Tancredo, Colorado congressman and head of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, came to New York to deliver another message. On the surface the men appear to represent opposite sides of the Republican platform on immigration, with Schwarzenegger holding out the American Dream center stage, while Tancredo rages about the coming immigration nightmare from stage (extreme) right.

Here at Madison Square Garden, near the vortex of U.S. theater and television, on the once gritty and now Disneyfied corridors of Broadway, the Republican Party is displaying what many are calling "schizophrenia" and "divisions" in their immigration policy. Closer diagnosis of the Republican Party's behavior towards immigrants, however, reveals another drama, one at once simple and complex, one not captured by the simplistic "schizophrenia" metaphor.

Translating his own Austrian immigrant success story into good political theater, Schwarzenegger made "moderate" appeals to the imagination of migrant masses when he said, "We Republicans admire your ambition. We encourage your dreams. We believe in your future." The overwhelmingly nonimmigrant – and still mostly white – audience applauded forcefully in what sounded like a new, more liberal immigration script for the Party.

But many immigrant rights advocates in New York and the rest of the country say that since 9/11, the Republican Party has transformed the story of immigrants in America from one of hopes and dreams into one of deferred dreams and extended nightmares.

Opposing what they feel is a staged and closed event led by Schwarzenegger, Karl Rove and the immigration "moderates' of the Republican party, are the marginalized forces of the anti-immigrant set. Tancredo told me that the actor-governor and others are practicing "Clintonesque doublespeak" around immigration. Tancredo says he didn't see the Republican immigration platform containing President Bush's "earned legalization" proposal � or the politicians responsible for it � until hours before it was announced.

"Remember when he first got elected?" asks the congressman. Rubbing his Old Glory tie, Tancredo adds, "He [Schwarzenegger] got in on a wave of anti-immigrant feeling on driver's licenses that ousted the previous governor. He was adamantly opposed to giving everybody driver's licenses and now he's moderating that view? Yeah, that's Clintonesque."

The Tancredos of the party are incensed at statements like this one made by Schwarzenegger about driver's licenses: "Let's do it the right way, let's make every Californian happy and let's make the undocumented immigrants happy." Yet, despite playing the role of Republican moderate on immigration, Schwarzenegger is about to veto another proposal on immigrant driver's licenses. It appears as if Schwarzenegger's "amerikanischer traum" (American Dream) and Tancredo's traumatic nightmare (i.e., a "porous border" allowing more terrorists in) are one and the same when it comes to immigrants not having a license to drive the new car in the driveway of the new home.

Appearing as if they're two different personalities in the mind of the "schizophrenic" Republican Party, Schwarzenegger and Tancredo are, in fact, loud but inconsequential voices within a party that is, in practice, of one mind about both national security-focused immigration measures and barring anything beneficial to immigrants. In preparation for his impending veto of new driver's license bill and just before his plea to immigrants, Schwarzenegger had his spokesperson cite "national security" concerns as the reason for denying the licenses.

"More and more immigrants have been denied the American Dream since 9/11," says Ana Maria Archila from the offices of the Latin American Integration Center, an immigrant service and advocacy organization on Staten Island. "Special Registration, increased detentions, increased raids and other measures send a direct message to immigrants here: it's all about law enforcement and security," says Archila, an immigrant from Colombia who says she knows how immigrants "need to make themselves as invisible as possible in this environment of fear." She and other advocates see a relationship between the national security climate and anti-immigrant sentiment in liberal New York and elsewhere.

Local and national groups like United Patriots of America (UPA) converged on Staten Island, deploying relatives of 9/11 victims to oppose agricultural worker legalization programs or the recently shelved DREAM Act, which would have given 60,000 studious undocumented youth access to university education. Advocates fear that a second Bush administration will unleash the more punitive CLEAR Act, which essentially turns local law enforcement officials into immigration agents.

Tancredo's denunciations of the DREAM Act ("Let the undocumented students return to their country of origin – now!") seem more honest when weighed against the star- studded immigration policy rhetoric that has, in the words of one advocate, "yielded zero positive results for immigrants from Bush and the Republicans."

Whether the Republican rhetoric paints a dreamy or nightmarish scenario, the end result, it seems, is still traumatic for tired and hungry immigrants living near and beyond the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The immigration drama played out in Madison Square Fortress turns out to be just another Broadway show, a staged Wrestlemania match.

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