The Slow March Toward Immigration Reform

Last Sunday, 200,000 immigrant-rights protesters shared the National Mall with a Tea Party crowd that shouted racial epithets and spat at members of Congress. Unsurprisingly, the media focused on the histrionics of the Tea Partiers, but Sunday's immigration demonstration was an important manifestation of the movement's building impatience. In its enthusiasm and optics -- legal and undocumented immigrants chanting "Sí se puede," singing folk songs, and waving both American and Mexican flags -- the demonstration was reminiscent of the immigration protests in 2006.

Then, as now, immigration-rights advocates were banking on a president's campaign promise to reform the broken immigration system. But the parallel largely ends there. While far from perfect, the 2006 immigration-reform effort at the very least featured Republicans and Democrats coming together on legislation. The almost comical juxtaposition of the Tea Partiers and immigrant-rights demonstrations underscores a basic difference between 2006 and now: America has become a more hostile place for immigrants.

The mass immigration protests in 2006 were sparked by what came to be known as the Sensenbrenner bill, a draconian piece of legislation that would have stripped undocumented immigrants of many due-process rights and made undocumented presence a criminal -- as opposed to a civil -- offense. The bill itself was a bit of an outlier, running counter to immigrant-friendly policies promoted by Republicans who were trying to court socially conservative Hispanic voters. After the Sensenbrenner bill passed the House, protesters flooded the streets of cities across the country in a turnout John McCain called "bigger than the Vietnam War demonstrations." Congress responded. Not only did the demonstrations receive extensive media coverage, they compelled the Senate leadership to pass a competing immigration bill that would have provided a path to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

Though the Senate bill did not make it past the social conservatives in the House, it did enjoy support among Republican political figures like McCain, George W. Bush, Lindsey Graham, and now-Democrat Arlen Specter. Republicans also admonished colleagues in the House for racist outbursts and nativism. “Some anti-immigrant Republicans are guilty of demagoguery and racism,” reacted Mike Huckabee, then Arkansas governor and future GOP presidential candidate. So far, Huckabee has not condemned the racist outbursts of today's Tea Partiers. Instead, Republicans save accusations of racial bias for the president himself.

Since Obama's election, the Republican Party has become more anti-immigrant, making the sort of bipartisan movement on immigration reform we saw in 2006 unlikely. Membership in the dubiously named House Immigration Reform Caucus, a nativist coalition whose initiatives have included an outright ban on all immigration -- legal and illegal -- has increased dramatically since the 2006 protests; for years it had membership in the teens, but it now includes 110 members. Republicans who once supported comprehensive immigration reform no longer do. For example, McCain's 2005 plan would have granted undocumented immigrants amnesty, but the senator has since backed down from the measure.

Even for those Republicans who are willing to publicly support immigration reform, partisan rancor all but ensures it won't go anywhere. Graham -- the lone Republican senator willing to co-sponsor legislation providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants -- indicated as much when he threatened that the passage of health-care reform would kill any chance of passing immigration reform. Some advocates claim that unlike health care, immigration reform enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress, but this masks the fact that when Republicans talk about "immigration reform," they largely mean increasing border enforcement and cracking down on undocumented immigrants.

The growing nativism among members of Congress reflects a society-wide trend. Since the 2006 protests, membership in anti-immigrant groups has increased 600 percent. The number of these groups has also risen from around 40 in 2005 to over 250 today. Many of these groups have gained a veneer of credibility by posing as nonpartisan think tanks. The Center for Immigration Studies, which together with NumbersUSA and FAIR forms a sort of racist trifecta, routinely sends out innocuous-looking policy papers that surprisingly find, time after time, that immigrants pose a threat to our economic and social stability. Their members are called to testify before Congress as "experts," but as the Southern Poverty Law Center has extensively documented, behind their wonky image and deceptive use of statistics lies the bigotry of John Tanton, the eugenicist and white supremacist who helped found all three organizations. These lobbying groups donate millions to anti-immigrant legislators and are a powerful force in Washington.

Pinning the recent rise of nativism to a single cause is difficult. The 2006 protests were met with an expected backlash, but high unemployment during the recession and sensational media reports about drug-related border violence have further helped fuel economic protectionism and nativism. Perhaps it is understandable that the immigration rally took a backseat to the climactic health-care vote, but by failing to highlight grass-roots efforts at immigration reform and reporting more generally on the ways our immigration laws and institutions treat people unfairly, the mainstream media have created a void filled largely by anti-immigrant cable-news crusaders like Bill O'Reilly and Lou Dobbs. The public is little informed about how our immigration system works, but they know plenty about problems in the drug war.

Despite the enthusiasm of the march, public sentiment and our immigration policy are moving in the wrong direction: The Obama administration has increased deportations and stepped up border enforcement. This week, the Arizona Legislature is poised to pass a law that largely resembles the bill that sparked the 2006 protests; it stands a good chance of passing. Unlike before, the voices of moderate Republicans like McCain, who faces a tough primary challenge from his right, are nowhere to be found.

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