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A Job Only Immigrants Can Do?

by Frank Sharry

President Bush was never my kind of President. But shortly after he took office in 2001, he caught my attention with an evident desire to make history on an issue near and dear to my heart.

For the first time in American history, an American President made Mexico the destination of his first trip out of the country. There, he rode horses with the democratically elected Vicente Fox, and to the surprise of many, agreed to make immigration the cornerstone of the bilateral relationship.

The idea was big and bold: to regulate migration intelligently rather than repress it ineffectively. They both seemed to grasp the mismatch between labor-market reality and restrictive immigration policies. Mexicans and others come to the United States to work, but the miniscule numbers of legal slots force migrants into a black market dominated by smugglers, fake document merchants and unscrupulous employers.

The solution? Bring migration out of the shadows and under the rule of law; build a new regulatory regime to end border deaths, workplace abuse and widespread illegality; and bring the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. out of the shadows.

The negotiations gained considerable momentum, culminating in a successful state visit to the U.S. by President Fox in early September of 2001. Just four days before 9/11, the “two amigos” agreed in principle to negotiate a deal and sell it to their respective Congresses.

The 9/11 attacks stopped the negotiations cold. Mexico’s opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq made relations with the U.S. worse. The prospect of a Mexico-U.S. migration accord dimmed.

Then last year, the newly re-elected President Bush seemed to signal that Senator John McCain would lead the way and take the issue to the U.S. Senate. The implicit understanding was that McCain, along with Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy would deliver the Senate, and the President would deliver the House of Representatives.

But last month, the historic effort to overhaul immigration policy with a 21st century approach hit a wall.

The wall is not a metaphor. It is real. Last month, the Republican-led House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly for the harshest immigration bill in some 80 years, including 700 miles of wall to be built on the 2,000 mile U.S-Mexico border.

And the wall is not the bill’s most offensive provision. That dubious dishonor belongs to the provisions that make all undocumented workers “aggravated felons” (as if working to feed one’s family is akin to a crime of violence) and make all those who help undocumented immigrants -- from family members to priests and nuns to employers and friends -- subject to arrest for doing so.

What did President Bush do in the face of this challenge? Did he stand up to the leaders in his own party and defend immigrants as members of hardworking families that deserve fair treatment? Did he use the bully pulpit to talk about bridges instead of walls? Did he repeat his oft-quoted sound bit that “family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande?”

No. He strongly endorsed the House bill. In fact, he bear-hugged it and helped give it momentum with an October 2005 speech in Tucson, Arizona calling for tougher policies.

He still manages a sentence or two about the need for comprehensive reform, but the new emphasis is unmistakable. It’s about getting tough, and hardly about getting smart. The man who has stood his ground on all manner of policies and personnel seems to have caved on this one.

How come? The Republican Party is in trouble; 2005 was an unmitigated disaster for the Party and the President, from the failure of Social Security reform to Iraq and Katrina to indictments of White House staff and corruption scandals.

And when a political party is in trouble it acts like a cornered animal: it lashes out at the vulnerable in an attempt to regain lost territory. Indeed, House leaders growled, lunged and drew blood. The land of the free, this nation of immigrants, the home of the Statue of Liberty with its torch to the sky, voted to wall itself off from friendly neighbors and working families seeking the American Dream. President Bush aided and abetted this ugly turn of events.

What now?

The Senate is likely to take a more positive direction, but the House bill significantly increases chances that this Congress will enact a bad bill. What are the prospects for a workable comprehensive bill that legalizes and regulates immigration? Delayed at best; derailed at worst.

But this does not mean it is time to sit back and wait. To the contrary. Now is the moment of truth, the time for the unheard and overlooked to raise their voices and their visibility. Now is the time to demand solutions and citizenship, instead of slogans and stupidity; to fight for more visas and vetting, instead of more jails and walls; to insist on families united and work rewarded rather than deaths in the desert and fear on the job.

Yes. This is a job for immigrants: To restore America to its tradition as a nation of immigrants and help it avoid becoming lesser version of itself. Who else will do the work Americans don’t want to do?

About The Author

Frank Sharry is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum in Washington, DC.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.