The dearth of blog posts on this site responding to the news stories about huge immigrant rallies from coast to coast is proof of the fear that pervades the Democratic/liberal nonposition on immigration reform. Take a look at the pages and pages of vitriol in the comments on the anger at Mexican flags dotting the notably peaceful protests (despite the obvious predominance of stars and stripes), the linkage between wage stagnation and illegal immigration, the "build a wall now" demands. The best the few defenders of the protests can offer is throwback foreign policy arguments about how the United States and the West ruined the immigrants' home countries and the damage is coming home to roost.
But if Democrats think they can sit back and watch the GOP self-destruct on this one, the U.S. is likely to end up with the worst of both worlds: A Bush program that allows unskilled immigrants to work here with few to no labor rights (institutionalizing low wages and dangerous working conditions) and an excuse for heavy handed enforcement rather than effective government. Think what that will mean to our health care crisis, to social services, to housing shortages and homelessness, not to mention our sense of justice.
Everyone from immigrants to xenophobes know that the current system is thoroughly broken. Enforce and wall off one part of the U.S.-Mexico border and desperate people are poking holes elsewhere, risking death in the desert for an low-paying job in the so-called "informal" economy. The current system lets the (shrinking) middle class in Los Angeles have cheap housekeepers, gardeners and nannies, a habit that the East Coast has finally caught onto. Construction companies, agribusiness and the food industry have a fully disposable labor force, without a hint of disapproval from a government that pretends to be of, by and for the people. It serves Bush's twin masters -- helping big business save money and stirring up the nativism of the militia wing of the GOP.
At least Bush has a program that is a few steps back from the xenophobic spewing of Sen. Bill Frist and his ilk. (The demonstrations have had one solid effect, with today's removal from the latest immigration bill of a clause making felons of church groups who might give water, food or any other help to illegal immigrants.
It may be too late for Democrats, with the Senate version of the immigration bill heading for a floor vote this week. But if they could suck up their courage for a day or so, they could say:
Pure criminalization of immigration, especially along the border with Mexico, will only make the trip more dangerous--not less likely. Immigrants would remain further in the shadows, subject to increased employer abuse and even lower pay. Those who get here will never go home again, as immigrants once did with regularity, because of the cost in dollars and risk to make the return. Therefore we agree with President Bush that a guest worker program is necessary. But it must be accompanied by stronger labor rights for both the newly legal workers and the people born here or naturalized who feel themselves slipping out of the middle class.
Employers of these immigrants must be required to fund their health care, whether they provide it directly or not. That would increase the availability of health care for the rest of the labor force. On that point, Mexico's government has offered to discuss some sharing of the immigrant health care burden and other social costs Guest workers must be protected under applicable U.S. Labor laws, and have access to workers compensation programs. This is not coddling immigrants, but forcing corporations and individuals to face up to the true costs of illegal labor. Once that is calculated, U.S. workers will regain their competitive ability, while guest workers will be able to cross the border to visit family. In many cases they will build a new life at home with their savings, perhaps providing jobs that slow the impetus for migration.
U.S. foreign aid focused on job development in Mexico, with strict anticorruption restrictions, will be greatly increased.
The law today is broken. What Congressional Republicans are proposing so far is worse. President Bush's corporate-friendly guest worker program is better, but still a Trojan Horse. We will develop the concepts above into a legislative proposal before the end of the week and hit the road to explain to Red and Blue America alike that immigration is something that can be handled to the benefit of workers on both sides of the border.
It's depressing to know that none of the above is likely to happen. Which means that after the current Kabuki drama in the Senate is over, the immigration crisis will be waiting for the next president.