After the death of the DREAM Act last week, Monday's Democratic debate gave immigrants and their defenders even more to mourn. Sen. Chris Dodd, who has tried to court immigrant votes with his Spanish fluency, floated a new campaign tactic. Dodd declared that drivers' licenses are "a privilege, not a right," referring to New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposal to offer a different type of licenses to undocumented immigrants. Sen. Hillary Clinton flip-flopped around the issue. "They are driving on our roads," said Clinton, only to dispute Dodd's claim that she supported the policy.
The real threat looming on the electoral horizon is that more and more Democrats are joining Republicans in capitulating to the public antipathy against immigrants.
Among these disconcerting developments were statements about immigration made last week by Illinois Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the powerful chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and an architect of the Democratic congressional victories of 2006. Immigration "has emerged as the third rail of American politics, and anyone who doesn't realize that isn't with the American people," Emanuel was quoted as saying. He also added, "This issue captures all the American people's anger and frustration not only with immigration, but with the economy. This is a big problem."
As one of the top Democrats central to plotting strategy and raising money towards their 2008 campaigns, Emanuel is nothing less than dangerous. Such statements mean that candidates and incumbents need to stay away from immigration issues. Dodd's anti-immigrant debut and Clinton's vacillation seamlessly follow the script written by the Democratic moneymen and strategists like Emmanuel. And the debate was just the latest performance.
Consider the theatrics given us by the crop of recently elected "pragmatists" like Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill. Both ran to the hard right of even the most basic immigration reforms earlier this year. And when the DREAM Act came up for a vote last Tuesday, they joined the Republicans in denying the "dream" to immigrant students.
To know where this comes from one needs to look back to 1994 -- the beginning of contemporary anti-immigrant politics in the form of California's Proposition 187, which sought to deny health and education benefits to the children of the undocumented. Most students of immigration politics trace the origins of the Republican anti-migrant kulturkampf (culture war) to then-California Gov. Pete Wilson and the Republican Party. But along with Wilson and his dour republicans, Pres. Bill Clinton also played a major role.
As the search for a new approach to immigration politics begins, it is important to remember that the exponential increase in immigrant deaths in the desert began not with the patrols of aging Minutemen but with Clinton, who launched "Operation Gatekeeper" in 1994. Two years later, Clinton also signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing, which criminalized immigrants, and subsumed immigration law under criminal law, in a process some legal scholars call "crimmigration."
That the Democrats are, once again, starting to march against migrants is less a signal to the Republican movement than a sign of something else. Rather than continue DREAM Acting with Democrats, the immigrant rights movement may see the need to get back to what first brought immigrants -- and many in this country - hope: power-building and direct action like last year's marches.
The very possibility of the DREAM Act and of "immigration reform" itself was not born in the rotting bosoms of the two parties. It was born of dreaming and acting on the part of those with nothing to lose. Elections and politicians alone will not solve either the immigration crisis or the even greater general social crisis that approaches. Politicos need to be inspired by or scared of immigrant power from below.
Until immigrant power makes itself better known through intelligent strategy and intrepid action, the Democrats will continue the rightward tilt seen in the recent debate and the DREAM Act will remain dead.
Time to DREAM -- and Act.