What About Immigration Reform?

Paloma Esquivel
November 10, 2006

As Democrats celebrate their victory in the House and Senate this week, there is talk in Washington of a new plan for Iraq, an increase in the minimum wage, a new era of accountability and responsibility in government. On one issue, however, the Democrats are oddly quiet. There is little, if any, talk of immigration reform. For many immigrant rights activists the silence isn't surprising. Of the six issues Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., listed in July as immediate priorities for the party if it took control in the midterm elections, immigration reform was not on the list.

Still, this week many immigrant rights activists expressed a cautious optimism that reasonable immigration reform might be on its way. In elections across the country, many anti-immigrant hardliners -- both incumbents and new candidates -- were defeated. At the same time, Democratic candidates who campaigned against undocumented immigration were elected.

Defeat for the ultra-right

For many immigrant rights activists, the biggest victory this week is the defeat of hard-line anti-immigrant voices. Candidates who aligned themselves with the border vigilante group the Minutemen or who stirred up xenophobic sentiment generally didn't do well this election cycle.

Among those defeated Tuesday:

  • Rick O'Donnell, R-Colo., who once called for drafting high school seniors to guard the nation's border and ports.

  • J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz. Last year Hayworth proposed putting the military on the border and changing the Constitution to deny automatic citizenship to babies born on U.S. soil.

  • John Hostettler, R-Ind. Minuteman activist Jim Gilchrist had called Hostettler's election one of the most important in the country for the border enforcement lobby.

  • Minuteman Randy Graf, R-Ariz. The Republican congressional candidate lost a seat Republicans had held for decades by a margin of more than 10 percent.

This trend, say organizers, bodes well for a compromise bill that will both increase border enforcement and create a path to citizenship for immigrants already in the country without documentation.

"This was the best case scenario for the immigrant communities" says Brent A. Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). "Folks who thought that playing the anti-immigrant card would help them were wrong."

LULAC advocates for comprehensive immigration reform exemplified by the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill passed in the Senate this year. This type of plan concedes increased border enforcement in exchange for a guest worker program and path to legal status for the nation's undocumented. Other organizations, including most of the groups at the helm of immigrant rights marches this spring, are critical of immigration reform to create a guest worker program -- which, they say would disenfranchise workers -- and that would reinforce enforcement approaches like the militarization of the border.

For many organizers, the biggest threat now to immigration reform is the election of conservative Democrats who have rejected either type of reform.

Conservative democrats

As Democrats waited with baited breath this week to see if control of the Senate was within grasp, they generally looked to elections in Virginia, Montana, Missouri and Tennessee. In three of these four elections -- Missouri, Montana and Tennessee -- Democratic Senate candidates Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester and Harold Ford Jr. respectively, campaigned in opposition to comprehensive immigration reform.

Ford lost his election bid. But in Montana, Democrat Jon Tester, who said he unequivocally opposes amnesty for immigrants, won. In Missouri, Democrat Claire McCaskill may have won with a pro-stem cell, pro-choice, anti-war message, but when it came to immigration she campaigned to the right of President George W. Bush.

While McCaskill and Tester's victory might have given new hope to progressives looking to increase the minimum wage and find a new path in Iraq, for immigrant rights activists who marched by the tens of thousands this spring in hopes of a more just immigration policy, they left much to be desired.

In Montana, where the immigrant community is very small, Democrat Jim Tester ran one of the most anti-immigrant campaigns in the nation. Tester, an organic farmer by trade, repeatedly conflated immigration with the terror threat. When it comes to immigration, Tester said his first priority is to "secure ports and borders to keep out terror threats, illegal drugs and illegal immigrants." Opposing a path to citizenship for immigrants is "not just a matter of fairness," Tester's campaign website said, "it's a question of national security."

Still, among organizers there's a cautious optimism that the Democrat's hard line will soften once candidates take office.

Edgar Ramirez, the pastoral associate for the Hispanic ministry of the archdiocese of St. Louis, was one of several Missouri organizers who helped organize immigrant rights marches in the spring. He says McCaskill's anti-immigrant stance was necessary to win the election against an even stronger immigration opponent, Republican Jim Talent.

Despite McCaskill's stated opposition to comprehensive immigration reform, Talent repeatedly accused his opponent of being pro-immigrant in order to scare away rural voters. "I don't know where that came from," Ramirez says. "She made it clear to us that she's pro-law. She never talked about finding a path that will legalize people who are here."

Still, Ramirez says he's hopeful McCaskill will work for a compromise on immigration reform once she takes office -- something he says her opponent was unwilling to do. When McCaskill met with immigrant rights organizers at a public meeting in October, the former prosecutor expressed a strong desire to enforce the law.

"I'm pro-law. I believe we are a country of laws," Ramirez recalled her saying, "but we are also a country of immigrants. We are a country of compassion." He and other organizers took that as a concession. "She's willing to work with us," Ramirez says, "That's something we never heard from Talent."

A window for change

Like Ramirez, many organizers expressed hope that once Democratic candidates take office, there will be a window of opportunity to create a path to citizenship for immigrants -- one that didn't exist in Congress under Republican control. In the House, anti-immigrant leaders like Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., who authored HR 4437, the bill to make felons of undocumented immigrants, will no longer hold his powerful position as head of the House's judiciary committee. In the Senate the McCain-Kennedy compromise bill passed this year with the support of only 23 of the 55 Republican senators while 38 of 42 Democrats and the chamber's lone independent supported it. With control of the Senate in Democrats' hands the Senate should continue to support a comprehensive approach. The bigger test is getting both houses to stop promoting militarized border enforcement.

"Some of the Democrats that have been elected are social conservatives -- that's obvious with McCaskill, Tester, and even Jim Webb (in Virginia)," says Esther Nieves, director of immigrant and refugee rights for the American Friends Service Committee's (AFSC) Project Voice. The challenge, she says, is moving these social conservatives to a place where they understand that "immigration reform has to go beyond securing the borders." She's optimistic.

"Part of the process of becoming a member of congress is the skill to compromise," she says. "If the Democratic leadership is very serious about moving forward with immigration reform, there is a window now."

Paloma Esquivel is a freelance writer based in Riverside, Calif.