Posted by Tyler Reny
Rep. Steve King (R-IA), the new chair of the House Subcommittee on immigration, has grand plans for the future. In 2006 he showed off a model of an electrified U.S-Mexico border fence on the House floor. It would be electrified, he pointed out "with the kind of current that would not kill somebody…We do this with livestock all the time." King's disgusting and shameful rhetoric, and the enforcement-only legislation that he has proposed, is just the beginning of what to expect from the immigration debate for the next two years. As long as Rep. King mans the crucial veto point in the House, liberals can kiss comprehensive immigration reform goodbye.
Immigration reform used to be an issue that cut across traditional partisan divides. The Republican Party was split between pro-business conservatives that lauded the cheap labor that immigrants provided and the socially conservative border hawks, or nativists, who warned that immigrants were a threat to our national identity. On the Democratic side were pro-labor Democrats who believed that new immigrants competed with native workers and lowered wages and cosmopolitans who believed that increased diversity only strengthened the country. But these historic partisan divisions are quickly lining up along strict partisan lines with Republicans opposed to anything but enforcement legislation and Democrats fully behind comprehensive reform.
When President George W. Bush, a friend of Hispanics and selftitled compassionate conservative, made a speech in 2006 in favor of "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants, his popularity was already in the toilet and his party had been running against his presidency in re-election campaigns. Needless to say, the Republican Party didn't jump immediately on board. The 2006 amnesty bill that Bush was advocating passed the Senate but died in the House when Republican leaders refused to bring it up for a vote.
In 2007, with a new Democratic majority in the House, Senator Kennedy (D-MA) teamed up with Senator McCain (R-AZ) to push a comprehensive and bipartisan bill through the Senate. During debate, the bill was weighed down with multiple conservative amendments that shifted the bill so far to the right that many on the left threatened to walk away. But, with hesitant support from many civil rights and pro-immigration advocacy groups, most Democrats stayed on, fearing that total failure would be more devastating than a bad bill. When the conservative bill came up for a cloture vote (which would allow debate to end), most Republicans (with the exception of 12) bailed and withdrew their support. The bill died. Pro-immigrant Republicans have all but disappeared.
With Federal immigration reform officially dead, at least for a while, states like Arizona are taking matters into their own hands. This summer, Arizona's state legislature passed the toughest immigration bill in the country (which was actually written, funded and lobbied by the private prison industry, but that is the topic of another column). The bill, which is now being battled in court, allows local police officers to arrest anybody that looks "suspiciously illegal." All legal immigrants need to carry papers proving their legality. Kind of like how free blacks had to carry papers around proving their "freedom" in the mid 19th century.
The Arizona bill polled well with voters around the country. Some 59 percent of voters approve of law as written and many Republican candidates have built their campaigns around anti-immigrant sentiment. Sharron Angle, the Republican who ran against Majority Leader Harry Reid for Senate in Nevada, ran some of the most negative, xenophobic and blatantly racist ads ever aired against Hispanics. Tom Tancredo, Republican running for governor of Colorado, based his campaign on anti-Hispanic rhetoric and fear mongering. While both Angle and Tancredo lost, they both amassed a solid base of Republican supporters who shared their nativist sentiment and rewarded them in the voting booth.
Many of those Republicans, now in charge of the House, will advocate an enforcement only approach to immigration reform, never mind that President Barack Obama already signed a massive $600 million enforcement-only bill in August. Any attempt at serious reform from Democrats will likely get hung up in Rep. King's committee. But not all hope for reform is lost. The Republican presidential candidate in 2012 will have to appeal to Hispanics to win key battleground states during the general election. Maybe the electric fence idea will get ditched for something less contentious, like border guards with cattle prods.
Tyler Reny is a senior government major who enjoys good food, politics and jazz.