Immigration Debate Creates Strange Bedfellows

Throughout the dramatic highs and lows of the Senate's immigration debate, one thing has rung true; no matter which side of the debate you are on, you are in bad company.

Anti-immigrant groups that claim to be the voice of the American working class are being joined, to their dismay, by white supremacists and militant nativists calling for violence. Meanwhile, pro-immigrant Latino civil rights organizations like the National Council of La Raza are reluctantly standing next to big business lobby groups. As Cecilia Muñoz, vice president for policy at La Raza, said this week: "Civil rights and business are together -- and we're not often allies."

Around the country -- and even here on AlterNet's pages -- this debate has not adhered to party lines. Last Thursday, a coalition of big business Republicans and liberal Democrats proudly announced a bipartisan compromise on immigration reform -- a bill providing a path to citizenship for an estimated 7 or 8 million illegal immigrants, as well as a guest worker program and enhanced border enforcement. On Friday, a bipartisan group blocked the compromise measure. (The debate will pick up again after legislators' two-week Easter break.)

The Senate's Thursday morning compromise and Friday afternoon fumble were not about partisanship. All of it, from the legislative battle to the rallies in the streets and the Minutemen border patrols, has been about how each of us, as individuals, view Latin American immigrants in this country.

The white supremacists, anti-immigrant legislators and many working-class American citizens regard the mass of brown people -- desperate for work and tending to have lots of children -- as a threat, though for wildly different reasons. Nativists and xenophobes may fear the "browning" of white America -- a fear of becoming a minority and having to share power with the "other." Workers worry about the real threat of weakened labor rights and blame immigrants for low wages. Immigrants are a convenient scapegoat in this country, where poor citizens often remain poor no matter how hard they work. Many poorly educated African-American men continue to face fierce discrimination and high unemployment rates.

Meanwhile, big business lobbyists, many unions, churches and American-born Latinos stand on the opposite side, viewing (legal or illegal) Latin American immigrants as a natural part of American life -- one we can't imagine America without. For many corporations, the construction industry, hotel and restaurant owners, and farms, immigrants are a dependable, steady supply of cheap labor. (And according to the Pew Hispanic Center report illegal immigrants comprise as much as 24 percent of the work force in farming, and 17 percent in cleaning.)

To unions, they are a sleeping giant that could, if mobilized, reinvigorate the waning power of labor. To the church, they are the base of Catholicism, the poor and hungry that scripture says to feed, clothe and shelter. And for American Latinos and many fellow immigrants, they are our relatives and friends, people like us, or in the same boat our parents and grandparents were in. They are people who, like the millions of immigrants before them, are desperately seeking the elusive American dream. And for that, we cannot fault them.

From the beginning of this political upheaval, our polarized views of the Latin American busboy/farmworker/maid have shaped fundamentals of the debate. While the white men in suits on both sides of the aisle agreed long ago that the country needed to reform its immigration laws, the two sides of the debate never actually agreed on what the problem was. One side saw bad laws; the other side saw bad lawbreakers. For legislators who sympathize with illegal immigrants, the problem they see is that of exploited laborers, people dying in the deserts in attempts to cross the border illegally and unrealistic immigration limits. For those who view illegal immigrants as scabs and parasites, the problem has been one of enforcement -- how to jail, deport and keep out immigrants in order to ensure the welfare of "real" Americans.

The far right (Rep. Tom Tancredo, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Minutemen) have been trying to figure out how to get the public's support for a 700-mile wall, huge new detention centers, and the jailing of priests and volunteer workers. The official plan has been to criminalize illegal immigrants, as the Sensenbrenner bill would do; the unofficial plan has been to terrorize them: the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that "neo-Nazis and anti-immigration extremists responded to a highly publicized wave of immigration reform demonstrations in major U.S. cities, with open calls for terrorist violence, including truck bombs, machine gun attacks, and assassinations of U.S. senators and members of Congress."

The result of this kind of rhetoric has been a political debate tainted by racism and xenophobia. A recent poll conducted for New American Media showed that 67 percent of legal immigrants thought anti-immigrant sentiment was growing. The poll stated that legal immigrants were "alarmed regarding the tone and substance of the current political debate on immigration policy." A whopping 55 percent of respondents said that anti-immigrant sentiment had affected their own families.

Meanwhile, the pro-immigrant left, right and center have tried to figure out how to get illegal immigrants integrated into society as legal residents and/or citizens, because, in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's words, "Get real, we're not going to deport 12 million people."

The debate has turned usual politics on its head, as the most unlikely forces have banded together -- Republican John McCain, Democrat Ted Kennedy, centrist Hillary Clinton, the big business lobby, the Catholic Church, the religious left, immigrant rights groups, Latino high school students and many unions. It's a choir of the good, the bad and the ugly, all calling for comprehensive reform for different reasons. Of course, in this particular motley crew, many progressives are loathe to join forces with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Essential Workers Immigration Coalition, huge business lobbies intent on making profits by paying low wages and providing no benefits. The result of this strange coalition has been repeated accusations of insensitivity to the low-wage American citizen, a feeling of betrayal among the blue-collar citizenry.

Yet the grassroots outcry for compassionate immigration reform has come from fellow blue collars. And the outcry continues. Today, hundreds of thousands of people are participating in a National Day of Action calling for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Immigrant rights groups, student groups and unions who are organizing rallies said they expect millions of people in scores of cities to drop work or school on Monday, April 10, in a populist call for lawmakers to view their busboys, gardeners and homebuilders as workers who deserve a place at the American table.

For a list of rallies taking place today around the country, go to or visit the calendar of events for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

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