For most of 2013 I have carefully, perhaps obsessively, followed the debate around comprehensive immigration reform. Beginning with the emergence of the “Gang of 8” the process has been a fascinating example of the many levers of the political process. As the Gang negotiated behind closed doors, the public engaged in a vigorous debate. Early on Marco Rubio, the young, Cuban-American, Tea-Party senator took center stage, being the pivotal figure whose assent was indispensable to bring sufficient Republican support to a legislative proposal.
As the Gang worked its way, Rubio’s position seemed ambiguous, but all along I wanted to believe in the possibility of a compromise, and all along I called for it. Certain sacrifices would be needed in the name of a broad comprehensive solution to a problem that affects more than eleven million people who face not only a lack of a legal status, but, more importantly, the growing aggressiveness by federal and particularly some local authorities in their criminalization and prosecution. Thus, when the first draft of the Gang’s framework was announced, I disliked the language of drones, more walls, more security and triggers, but saw them as the price to pay for a negotiated solution to the immigration question.
I was well impressed by Marco Rubio and his Sunday show marathon the week the Gang’s bill was announced. He was forceful and articulate as he built an argument in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. Then the new phrase came along – “the bill can be improved” – and it became the mantra, particularly for proponents of increased “border security.” Amendments came along and the discussion heated up as the Judiciary Committee considered them. The bill started slowly, but steadily moving right, as the Republicans had to be pleased. Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, flirted with an amendment that for many of us seemed common sense: including as beneficiaries all those couples who, regardless of sexual orientation, were legitimately and legally married. The very mention of this possibility, one of the few proposals that would move the bill slightly to the left, was immediately called a “poison pill” by Marco Rubio, who threatened to withdraw his support for the bill. Talk of the amendment was discretely withdrawn (always with the hope that the Supreme Court would decide against DOMA’s constitutionality – something that has fortunately happened).
A bill with increased “security” provisions finally cleared the Committee at the end of May, opening the way for a new debate on the Senate floor, and a new dynamic started. Considering that House Republican support for the bill would be crucial, Chuck Schummer insisted that obtaining at least seventy votes in the Senate would be necessary for the bill to gain strong momentum. This had been part of the Gang’s strategy from early in the process, but now the quest for the seventy votes continued moving the bill steadily to the right, ironically, incorporating amendments from senators who had clearly announced their opposition to the project as a whole.
The bill’s cost was another issue raised early on by conservative opponents: with growing federal deficits it would be too onerous, some argued. The Heritage Foundation published its assessment of the reform’s costs, arguing that immigrants would be an economic burden, taking as its basic premise that Latinos are by definition ignorant, unskilled, and takers. The report was quickly discredited and one of its authors, Jason Richwine, forced to resign from the Foundation. Under the pretense of budgetary concerns, GOP House representatives began one of their most despicable moves. Bringing once again the Affordable Care Act to the fore, they aggressively demanded that any immigration reform beneficiary be kept away from health care benefits. Furthermore, these enemies of federal mandates demanded all newly documented immigrants to purchase their own health care policies in the private market. Still, despite these inhumane moves, I continued pushing for compromise legislation.
Then something spectacular and incomprehensible happened. On June 18 the Congressional Budget Office released its report on the Senate bill’s cost (it was updated July 3 to reflect the final bill passed by the Senate). Contrary to the Heritage Foundation’s report, it predicted a surplus. It seemed like great news, but within days this cause for celebration took an unexpected turn. If we have a surplus, senators proposed, why not direct it to border militarization, and thus emerged the Corker-Hoeven amendment. In what was presented as the last necessary step to gain Republican support, thirty eight billion dollars were suddenly added to the bill for expenditures in even more military and surveillance equipment in what Forbeshas called “a multi-billion dollar bonanza for defense contractors.” This level of expenditure is such that even Sen. Bob Corker, one of the amendment’s sponsors, called it “almost overkill.” For his part, John McCain declared that we will have “the most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
With this latest amendment the bill passed the Senate June 27 with 69 votes (one is left to wonder how many votes it would have received without the amendment), and it is the House’s turn to move forward. The prospects in the House seem complicated, to say the least. It is a fact that many House Republicans oppose a “path to citizenship” in principle, and state that concessions in this direction, if any, would require a much tougher stance on “security” and “triggers.” A recent CNN column by Deirde Walsh considers a compromise with a much “tougher path to citizenship” and states that Nancy Pelosi foresees that “Democrats should swallow some concessions”. For their part, David Horsey of the Los Angeles Times and Stephen A. Nuño of NBC Latino expect total intransigence from Republican congresspeople whose gerrymandered districts don’t require them to even consider the Latino vote. For her part, Fawn Johnson from the National Journal takes an even more Machiavellian approach, expecting that through stall tactics and other distractions, “immigration won’t pass this year.”
On the other side, citing recent statements by the Border Network for Human Rights and Presente.org, Molly Ball recently asked “Are Liberals Turning on Immigration Reform?” My straightforward answer to this question is NO. Immigration reform here, and in many other parts of the world, is one of the most important human rights questions of our times. I, and the many people who have dedicated so much energy to the cause, still hope to see a humane immigration reform come to fruition. But, there must be a limit placed on the excessive militarization of our society. Rather than turning on immigration reform, I’m turning on the highjacking of the process by the military industrial complex and the private prison industry. Like Texas Rep. Filemón Vela, I am committed to immigration reform, and like him, Rep. Henry Cuellar and Rep. Beto O’Rourke, I echo Ronald Reagan’s call to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, “tear down this wall.” I am well aware that this is a utopian thought at this point, but at a time of economic and political integration across the world this should be our goal.
Given recent developments, for the time being I cannot, in good conscience, continue actively advocating for the current Senate Immigration Reform bill and the more radical changes that will come in the House. Even without this bill in place, the southern border is the most militarized it has ever been, and now there is talk of weaponizing drones at the border. With new triggers and conditions, the bill is more and more becoming “Border Security” legislation and not the humane immigration reform for which I had avidly advocated.
Back in March, Raúl Ramos y Sánchez published “Immigration: The Political Rubik’s Cube” for Latino Rebels, calling for a step by step approach to the many questions raised by our broken immigration system. Back then, in my optimistic enthusiasm, I debated him, insisting upon the need to pass a comprehensive package. A bit over three months later I begin to think that he might have been right, particularly when I realize that what is being proposed is, in Aura Bogado’s words “less-than-comprehensive.” As I move my active support away from the current bill I do not want to see the dreams of so many honest people be crushed due to political maneuvering in Capitol Hill. Were the effort for comprehensive immigration reform fail, I hope that at least initiatives with a broader base of support, like the DREAM Act, move forward in the legislature. This at least would address a small part of the larger drama of immigration that our nation faces.
Luis Marentes is an associate professor of Spanish at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who wants to explore ways in which to communicate and learn through the new social media. His academic work has focused on Mexican and Latin@ culture in the first half of the 20th century. As a member of a Pars-Mex New England family, Luis also has a great interest in the Middle East, and would hope to help foster an international dialogue. Follow @marentesluis.