Bernie Sanders and Immigration Reform: A Latino Political Activist’s Take

Jun 5, 2016
1:37 PM

Editor’s Note: An original version of the following essay was original published in Medium. The author has granted us permission to republish it here.

Recently I watched an interview from a 2007 broadcast of the CNN show Lou Dobbs Tonight, in which Dobbs interviewed Senator Bernie Sanders about that year’s push for immigration reform through the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. [You can watch the interview below, or read the transcript at this link.] As someone who has worked on issues affecting the Latino community, it hit me for a number of reasons.

The bill, primarily authored by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) was said to constitute “the most dramatic overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws in a generation” and would have traded on some conservative border enforcement priorities in order to institute a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented workers and families living in the United States. It was supported by both the George W. Bush White House and the Democratic leadership in the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), the coalition of Latino Democratic members of Congress.

Who Is Lou Dobbs?

In the 2004 campaign cycle, I was working at the DNC. One of my jobs being to follow and promote issues relating to the Latino community. I had done similar work at the DCCC the prior campaign cycle and had dealt with some Latino policy on Capitol Hill before that. An important part of working on national political campaigns and politics in general is to closely track the opposition and be able to explain to voters how the opposition’s policies would affect them, usually for the worse. This was often my role.

In this role I researched legislative and White House policy-making, followed the speeches and releases of officials, and also closely tracked the public debate about issues in national news including opinion shows. In this way, I became very familiar with Lou Dobbs Tonight, almost immediately after the show was launched in the summer of 2003.

I feel that I need to give you a full picture of what Lou Dobbs Tonight was like in order to understand the context of the Sanders appearance.

Lou Dobbs quickly showed himself to be one of the premier demagogues in the country on the issue of immigration. On his second show, June 17, 2003, Dobbs decried what he called the “millions of illegal immigrants… crossing our borders over the course of the past several years.” The next week he featured segments on “illegal immigration” in every one of the week’s five episodes.

Immigration Was Lou Dobbs’ Central Issue and Everyone Knew It

Immigration wasn’t his only issue  — Dobbs used his program to promote right-wing causes and policy in general —  but it was arguably his central issue. He continually agitated on the issue of immigrants, especially Latinos, over the six years the show aired on CNN. He promoted the idea of “hordes” swarming across the southern border, reinforcing that idea where possible with photos, video, and graphics meant to frighten and outrage his viewers. He liked to push the rhetoric further by reading comments from viewers’ on the air, as on January 12, 2004, when he quoted an email from “Judy from Chicago. [who said] ‘Just so I understand the situation, the American middle class is supposed to… accept hordes of illegal aliens overrunning our country….?’”

Dobbs hosted or featured guests representing the spectrum of anti-immigrant and anti-Latino nativist groups. These include people from The Minutemen Project, which Dobbs called “this country’s largest neighborhood watch project,” the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and Numbers USA. These groups in particular have all been noted as nativist organizations by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the premier institution tracking the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups. Dobbs received awards from both FAIR and CIS for his immigration reporting.

Dobbs also reported outrageous stories, such as about immigrants being rapists, immigrants causing thousands of cases of leprosy a year, and that Mexico and Mexican-Americans were conspiring to revolt and return the southwest to Mexican control. Dobbs called this the “Reconquista” of “Aztlan.”

I always found this one entertaining because, during my undergraduate years, I was the head of my school’s student group MEChA, which was founded in the 1960’s to empower Mexican American students educationally and politically, teaching them to speak up, to participate and engage and, in a community with relatively low college attendance, to be role models and to pull up other young people with them.

Precisely for those reasons, the group has always been a lightening rod for far-right hate, and Dobbs credited MEChA, whose name contains the word “Aztlan,” with leading the charge for the “Reconquista.” In one 2006 report purporting to show a clandestine map, Dobbs actually used a graphic prepared by the Council of Conservative Citizens (CofCC), a white nationalist group that gained recent infamy when it was reported to be an educational resource for the 2015 Charleston church shooter.

In May 2007, the CBS News show 60 Minutes devoted a segment to interviewing and analyzing Dobbs as a right-wing advocate rather than reporter on the immigration issue. It was not until 2009, however, that the chorus of voices railing against Dobbs, including by then the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in its official capacity, grew loud enough that CNN pulled the plug on Lou Dobbs Tonight. But really, this is just explanation as to how Latinos involved in national politics in the 2000’s knew who Lou Dobbs was and what he was about.

The Sanders Interview

This brings us back to the Sanders interview.

The interview occurred in June 2007, four years after Lou Dobbs Tonight began. The immigration reform bill was coming up for a Senate vote that week, a vote in which Sanders and 15 Democrats joined with hard-line conservatives in the GOP to defeat.

Sanders starts the interview with what has been his stump speech as a member of Congress his entire career: talking about the big corporations, big money interests, workers getting sold out, and the like. It very quickly, though, veers into territory that anyone who works on either immigration or Latino issues should recognize.

Lou Dobbs makes a point to reference that the “special interests” pushing the “amnesty legislation” aren’t just “corporate America” but are also the “socio-ethnic-centric interest groups who really have very little regard for the traditions of this country, the values of this country, or the constituents.” For anyone used to paying attention to racial code words and the otherization of Latinos, talking about “values” and “traditions” is notorious as a common way to bring prejudiced, anti-Latino sentiments into mainstream speech. What does Sanders say to that? Is there a denunciation, or even an acknowledgement of what he just heard? No. Sanders goes on to answer the question approvingly.

When He Says “Guest Workers,” Sanders Means Immigrants

Sanders tells Dobbs that with the economy in such bad shape, he doesn’t know “why we need millions of people coming into this country as guest workers.” Sanders’s presidential supporters make much of his opposition to this issue having been about protecting guest workers. You see here why that interpretation is just not possible.

For one, the single new guest worker program in the bill would have added at most 200,000 people, and even that number is arguable considering that other pre-existing temporary worker programs were revised or eliminated in the bill, likely leading to a lesser net increase. But Sanders himself ties it all together when he prefaces that statement with “that gets us to the immigration issue.” No one well-versed in these issues  — and Sanders, as a longtime member of Congress, is presumably an expert —  unwittingly conflates immigration with temporary workers. Immigration is the act of permanently moving to the United States. Temporary workers, guest workers, seasonal workers, what have you, are not part of the immigration debate per se because they are not permanently migrating. Sanders appears to confirm this thought when he goes on to characterize it as, “this whole immigration guest worker program,” tying any people coming into the U.S. and working into the idea of the “middle class get[ting] shrunken and wages go[ing] down.”

Sanders’ “Millions” Sounds a Lot Like Dobbs’ “Hordes”

There’s also no way to logically get to the “millions” of people Sanders warns of simply through new workers entering under the bill. Guest worker provisions certainly don’t do it, but legal immigration provisions don’t either. In fact, the bill significantly cut an avenue of legal immigration by eliminating some qualified family categories, including for the first time excluding parents of American citizens from being able to immigrate as “immediate relatives.”

It also ended the diversity lottery and made other changes that would have led to a net decrease in legal immigration. So where are the “millions of people” that “work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down…?” Well, the only part of the entire process that dealt with millions of people was the one that gave undocumented workers and their families visas, legalizing their status in the country. Once you think about it like this, the specter of “millions” of legal workers depressing wages is not even that dissimilar from Lou Dobbs’ own “hordes” of immigrants construct. And hearing Sanders use “millions of workers” as a boogeyman here makes his presidential campaign’s explanation, that in 2007 his vote was an effort to retain those family preference categories I just mentioned, sound incredibly hollow.

Watching the interview, you understand that Dobbs and Sanders are really just talking about the same thing using different language. Dobbs says “grand amnesty compromise,” Sanders replies with “guest workers.” Dobbs states that wages are declining in the industries that typically hire “illegal aliens” and points to that as a reason to oppose the “amnesty legislation,” Sanders responds with “That’s right” and tells his own story about a guest worker program. It’s a fluid back and forth, like watching a friendly tennis match.

Other People Went on Dobbs and DID Support Immigrants

What makes it worse is that appearing on Lou Dobbs Tonight was not predicated on agreeing with what Dobbs had to say. Even though his guests slanted severely to the right, Dobbs sometimes had on people who challenged him.

Two examples were presidential candidates Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-MO) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), both of whom came on in late 2003 and spoke for legalizing America’s undocumented population. Kucinich was especially notable because when Dobbs jousted with his gotcha-style questioning, lobbing the word “amnesty” to corner Kucinich, the congressman responded, “I think there ought to be amnesty.” A more typical response was that of Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), the chair of the CHC’s immigration task force and regular guest on Lou Dobbs Tonight, who consistently argued that amnesty was an incorrect term to use for legalization efforts because of all the contributions of, and requirements on, the undocumented population itself, and that legalization was an overall plus for America.

Sanders Did Not Support Immigration as Recently as 2007

What this interview shows is that, contrary to his campaign’s claims and his supporters beliefs, Bernie Sanders did not support immigration even as recently as 2007. In fact, his position appeared to be at the time closer to that of Lou Dobbs than it was to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the biggest voice Latinos have in federal government.

What people don’t seem to get is that it wouldn’t be surprising for Sanders to have not been a proponent of immigration. In fact, it would fit in well with his talk about corporations, the declining middle class, and pressure on wages. Through most of their history, the nation’s labor unions were anti-immigration and anti-legalization for similar reasons: that in their view immigrants would take jobs, increase the labor pool, create downward pressure on wages, and defeat organizing efforts. As some Sanders supporters have noted, even many of the celebrated Latino labor activists, such as Cesar Chavez, were not proponents of immigration and legalization back in the 60’s and 70’s.

Campaigning for President Forced Sanders’ Update on Immigrants

Today Labor, to the extent it is a coherent institution, is (with some outliers) pro-immigrant. Yet I’ve met a number of rank-and-file union members, and even some labor activists at the AFL-CIO and other institutions, that believe that immigration should be slowed or stopped and that undocumented workers have no permanent future in the United States, for the aforementioned reasons. And these people fit solidly within the Left spectrum of American politics.

So even if union leadership and the bulk of its membership has moved on in recent years, there was not really an intense pressure from that constituency for Sanders to do so. In fact, union members comprised some of Lou Dobbs Tonight’s audience at the time. It’s only been during the campaign for president that Sanders has had to update his views on immigration. He’s been forced to move into the liberal political space beyond the labor movement, into where most of the Democratic Party has been for far longer.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that Sanders has come around on the issue of immigration and now also purports to be passionate about policies important to Latinos. Personally, I think everyone should be. But considering where Sanders was just a few years ago, he is certainly not the person I would get behind as a champion for the Latino community. And he is certainly not the pure, unchanging, longtime advocate of every progressive policy as his campaign and supporters would have you believe.


Carlos M. Vizcarra has worked on federal and gubernatorial campaigns in dozens of states across the country as well as at the DNC, DCCC, and other organizations. He holds a JD and LLM in National Security Law from Georgetown University. You tweets from @CarlosMVizcarra.