Have Immigrants Hit The Wall?

After casting her "angry liberal" vote on Tuesday, psychiatrist and Coney Island, N.Y., resident Ellen Weinberg looked past the fence and wall guarding the entrance to her gated community and declared, "We have a right to protect our quality of life" and then added "even if it means putting up a wall."

The good news for the Jamaican, Dominican, Chinese and other immigrants living in the tall, crowded projects just a block away, is that Weinberg cast a vote that caused the fall of the GOP, the party of the red border wall. The bad news for immigrants across the country is that her angry vote helped bring about the rise of the party of the blue border wall, the Democrats. "A wall at the [U.S.-Mexico] border protects our standard of living," said Weinberg, whose conservative, national security-infused positions on immigration mirror those of a significant number of those Democrats--liberal, moderate and conservative--elected to the House and Senate Tuesday night.

Despite the predictable demise of Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, Randy Graf in Arizona and other red state darlings of the Minutemen and other anti-immigrantistas, the pro-immigrant legislative outlook is less-than-rosy--or even purple. The crop of House and Senate members-elect includes many Democrats whose positions on immigration hardly differ from the "border first" Republicans they ousted. This poses a major problem to those hoping the new political wave washes away the Wall, opposition to legalization, the increased raids and other enforcement-only immigration policies.

A good case in point is that of Ohio's senator-elect, Sherrod Brown, a self-described "progressive." In addition joining fellow Democrats and presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (as well as 24 other Demss and Republican presidential hopefuls John McCain and Sam Brownback) in their vote for the recently-approved 700-mile wall at the border, Brown also voted to deny habeas corpus to undocumented and legal immigrants deemed "enemy combatants" or suspected of providing "material support" to terrorist groups by the president.

In the House, the voice of the new majority may sound like that of one of the growing number of Blue Dog Democrats like North Carolina's Heath Shuler, who said in an interview during the campaign, "I oppose illegal immigration and any amnesty for those who have entered our country illegally. Securing our borders is not just an immigration issue, it's a matter of national security. I support the necessary funding for physical barriers, additional border agents and any other means required to secure our borders."

Despite the historic immigration marches earlier this year, Blue Dog, liberal-left and moderate Democrats were pretty consistent in following the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's message on immigration, which seemed to be, "Emphasize border security, ignore legalization." As Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi crafts what some pundits predict may be a more "moderate" legislative agenda that includes increasing the minimum wage, funding stem cell research and tax breaks for college tuition, her campaign and victory statements have largely left out any mention of immigration.

This silence on immigration from Pelosi and other Democrats provides little sense of where the numerous reform proposals of 2006 will go. This will depend on both the recent elections and on what activists on both sides of the immigration issue do inside and outside the Beltway. We should remember that, prior to the spring marches, the largest in U.S. history, the word in Washington was that there was no chance of even considering legalization. And though naive projections of a million new voters did not materialize, Latinos appear to have joined African-American, suburban, Catholic and women voters as they return to the Democratic fold. Recent polls by the William C. Velasquez Institute, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials and other organizations indicate that a majority of Latinos will carry into the Democratic tent concerns about immigration as one of their most important electoral issues.

In a rather bizarre scenario, the rightward tilt on immigration of many newly-elected Democrats may benefit the immigration proposal of the man deemed the biggest loser Tuesday night: George W. Bush.

Immigrant rights activists like Nativo Lopez, head of the Los Angeles-based Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana and a key leader in the 400-organization strong National Alliance for Immigrant Rights, fear that Blue Dog and other Democrats, some Republicans, key labor unions and other interest groups could create the perfect immigration storm by cutting a bipartisan deal on a guest worker program. "I think that deal may have been made even before the election" says Lopez, who represents the wing of the immigrant rights movement that rejects guest worker legislation or other bills that do not provide a path to full legalization.

Another, brighter scenario for immigrant rights supporters is one that frames the election of the Democratic majority as opening a space for negotiations. In that space, Blue Dog Democrats--and even those House Republicans who voiced support for legalization, a la McCain-Kennedy--the opportunity to vote early enough so that the heat coming from such a vote dies down before elections in 2008. But such a strategy would require significant and early pressure on Pelosi and her lieutenants by more left-leaning unions, religious and community groups and others. And a Democratic Senate majority and a McCain presidential candidacy may do much to provide further cover to closeted legalization supporters.

Regardless of their position on guest worker, legalization or other proposals, the movimiento may have to return to the mix of strategies and tactics--some tried-and-true, others new and more in-your-face--that shook Washington earlier this year. Now that elections are over, immigration rights activists may have to reverse and expand their signature slogan to say, "Today We Vote, Tommorrow We March, Protest, Organize, Sit-in and Declare Sanctuary."

As statements by many of the newly-elected members of Congress sound indistinguishable from statements made by outgoing Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, the author of the original legislation calling for a border wall, the movimiento must work harder to prevent the Democratic Party from building on Republican immigration policies. Failure to do so may result in the fusion of local politics in Ellen Weinberg's gated community to the politics of Fortress America.


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