Immigration was a hot button issue during the early primary season when all the Republican candidates moved to Tancredo-like immigration policy positions. Before they ran for president, some had supported sanctuary cities (Giuliani); college tuition for children of undocumented immigrants (Huckabee); immigration reform (McCain); and even illegal immigrant lawn services (Romney). Immigration briefly flared up during the Democratic debates when Hillary Clinton reversed her position at least three times on state driver's licenses for illegals.
Currently, when the media's attention has been on Hillary Clinton courting her "hard working white" voters; Barack Obama racking up delegates and endorsements; and Bush/McCain trying to paint the Democrats as latter day Neville Chamberlains, the issue of immigration has fallen off the radar as a campaign issue.
Earlier this month, May Day rallies failed to attract the huge numbers of immigrant advocates, who turned out back when it was thought that comprehensive immigration reform would be passed by Congress. In the wake of the Congressional failure, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has been very active on two fronts: raiding workplaces, especially in the food industry, and building walls along our border with Mexico, in order to satisfy Lou Dobbs, Tom Tancredo, and our other 21st century nativists. Clearly, there are aliens who have committed violent crimes in this country and they should be deported. The faithful Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") agents who risk their lives to arrest these people are to be commended. But then there are aliens who are only criminalized because they have used false documents to secure employment and not because they have committed other crimes, like murder, robbery, rape, etc. In the past twelve months, Chertoff has raided meat packing and poultry processing plants (and immigrant homes) around the country, arresting hundreds of workers and charging them with felonious criminal offenses, such as identity theft and Social Security fraud, in addition to the civil violation of unlawful presence in the U.S. The reason for the felony charges is to make these people ineligible for a future legal return to our country.
Unfortunately, many Americans do not understand why these people cannot wait in line and come here legally in the first place. They do not realize that the legal "line" for low skilled workers is barely existent. Our legal immigration system favors highly skilled immigrants and family reunification for relatives of U.S. citizens. In the meantime, there will be unintended consequences of all of these raids - when so much of the campaign discussion is about the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs overseas, commentators have not focused on one industry that has kept most of the jobs here - food processing and meat packing. Sure, food imports have risen dramatically but most food imports are cheaper ingredients for processed foods, fruits and vegetables, and seafood. The vast bulk of meatpacking and food manufacturing is still done here. But let's get real - meatpacking is a dangerous, physically demanding, and spiritually and emotionally difficult job - killing and butchering animals and poultry all day long is not something that most Americans raise their children to do. Make it impossible for meat packers and poultry processors to find workers here and they will be forced to move operations (and livestock and poultry raising) to Mexico.
Our meatpacking plants, from the early days of the stockyards in Chicago and Kansas City, were filled with immigrants - that is why Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906 - to gain sympathy for the plight of the immigrant workers. It was a side effect that his book created such a stir about the filthy conditions in the packing industry - which lead President Theodore Roosevelt to sign the federal Food and Drug Act the same year.
We know that many crops rot in our fields and orchards because farmers cannot find enough workers. Many will say the lack of workers is because the wages are so low - if they were raised - more Americans would pick crops and work in meat and poultry plants. This is true to some extent - one of the downsides of illegal immigration is that it has lowered wages for American born workers. But two wrongs don't make a right - the fact that we don't legally require living wages to be paid in this country and the fact that our immigration laws are totally out of synch with several realities (labor shortages, disparities between a rich country and a poor country sharing a 2,000 mile border, etc.) - does not make the current strategy of workplace and home raids and border walls either effective or humane.
In the meantime, kudos to the environmentalists and the Texas landowners who are suing Chertoff to try and block the construction of the border walls which are running roughshod over their property rights and our environmental laws, and which threaten to destroy many species of wildlife by cutting them off from rivers and streams in a desert area.
I remember, growing up in the 1960s, reading stories of the brave souls who tried to tunnel under or otherwise escape around the Berlin Wall into freedom in West Germany. Now we are like the East German Stasi - building a wall with our neighbor to the south, Mexico - instead of building bridges of cooperation like we have with Canada. My father, the son of Yugoslav immigrants, served in the U.S. Navy submarine service in WWII. He was captured and tortured by the Japanese. Yet he survived 18 months in a Japanese prison camp before the camp was liberated by U.S. Marines. My dad passed away in 1998 and so, thankfully, he does not have to read about Abu Grab, Guantanamo Bay, and the renditions, ghost prisoners, water boarding, and other cruel and unconstitutional acts conducted by the Bush Administration. Nor does he have to hear about the prisoners who have died and been mistreated while being held in immigration related detention. I know firsthand of what I speak, having represented asylum seekers who were held in our immigration prisons.
And yet, while all of this has been going on, the American public has been strangely passive. Organized labor has sat by while hundreds of factories close and millions of American jobs are shipped overseas. There have been no massive demonstrations against the Bush Administration's unconstitutional policies applied against immigrants subjected to warrantless, commando style raids of their homes and against "unlawful combatants" in the "war on terror."
In the 19th century, brave Union soldiers died on Civil War battlefields to free the slaves. Social reformers and labor leaders were beaten and murdered as they fought for the eight hour day and the end of child labor in our industrial factories. In the 20th century, fearless American soldiers shed their blood to protect us from imperialists, fascists and communists. We saw civil rights workers who were set upon by attack dogs and murdered as they defeated Jim Crow. In the 21st century, we have again seen selfless American soldiers fight to protect our country from Al Qaeda and other enemies. But what we have not seen are enough American citizens willing to fight to uphold the Constitution here at home.
Hopefully, the young people attracted to the candidacy of Barack Obama can bring our country back to its founding principles on both the home front and in our foreign policy. Also, if Barack Obama is our next President, I hope his first act will be to rename (and break up into smaller agencies), the "Department of Homeland Security" - which is far more reminiscent of the rise of the Nazis to power, that President Bush spoke of last week in Jerusalem, than anything Barack Obama or any Democrat has ever proposed for our foreign policy.