The Great Immigration Stalemate

Special Report

Five years ago, hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of people marched in big cities and small towns across the US demanding justice for the nation’s estimated 12 million undocumented residents. Hitting a high point with work stoppages on May Day 2006, the pro-immigrant protest was the largest social movement in the US since the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War years.

Mounting a counter-offensive, immigration restrictionists blocked legislation in Washington to legalize undocumented persons, while at the state and local levels they enacted a smattering of immigration-related laws and ordinances.

Though the jury is still out, it’s looking increasingly likely that the restrictionist movement has overreached and could have hit its own peak with the passage of Arizona’s SB 1070 last year, the controversial law that requires local police to interrogate and detain people they stop who are suspected of being in this country without papers.

With key parts of the law blocked in the federal court system for now, and massive grassroots opposition to it continuing, SB 1070 could be losing its luster to potential supporters. What’s more, Arizona lawmakers have recently backed down from approving several immigration-related measures, including a bill to deny citizenship to children born in the US of undocumented parents.

After Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law one year ago, the conventional wisdom was that “Arizona copy-cat legislation would move quickly in other states,” Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), told reporters in a phone conference last week.

“The copy-cat wave seems to have fallen,” Murguia contended.

Of 31 states which have witnessed attempts at passing SB 1070 clones, 22 have rejected them so far, a new NCLR report notes. However, the 2011 legislative season is still not over yet in a number of states, the NCLR cautions, and a law similar to SB 1070 is sitting on Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s desk. Lawmakers in Florida and other states are also considering immigration bills. Utah has gone the route of SB 1070, but also has approved a controversial guest worker program to regularize the status of undocumented people in the state.

Arizona Republican state Senator Russell Pearce, sponsor of SB 1070, recently told National Public Radio that his law was a success. Pearce claimed that SB 1070 had reduced crime, resulted in a 500-inmate reduction in state prisons and encouraged between 100,000 and 200,000 people to flee the border state.

But many others have a very different assessment of SB 1070, which inspired tourism boycotts, convention cancellations and the launching of Sound Strike. A movement of prominent entertainers who have pledged not to perform in Arizona, Sound Strike endorsers include Cypress Hill, Juanes, Maldita Vecindad, Kanye West, Los Tigres del Norte, Lila Downs, Ozomatli, Steve Earle, and scores of others

Based on earlier research by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress, the new NCLR report estimates that Arizona will have lost about $769 million in economic and tax revenues because of SB 1070 by the end of 2011.

Arizona’s business leaders have taken notice. In a letter to Sen. Pearce last month, the captains of state industry appealed on state lawmakers to leave the immigration matter to the federal government.

While careful to declare they were not “pro illegal immigration,” the signers of the letter urged the Arizona State Legislature to “redirect its energy by joining us in pressing the federal government for meaningful immigration reform.”

The letter was signed by executives of US Airways, Cox Communications, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, Sundt Construction, Intel Corporation and the Arizona Republic newspaper, among many others.

Business sector opposition to local immigration laws is percolating in many other states as well.

Participating in the same phone conference as Murguia, the president and chief executive officer of the Indiana Hotel and Lodging Association related how business groups were working with other community members to soften a proposed SB 1070-like law.

Indiana doesn’t “want to be the next Arizona,” said John Livengood, who also serves as president of the Indiana Restaurant Association. “Even Arizona doesn’t want to be the next Arizona. “We’ve been making progress here but still have work to do.”

“Utah, Alabama, Florida and others should closely examine Arizona’s current financial and social situation,” Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, warned in a statement.

“The choice is theirs: they can embrace immigrant integration and community cohesion, or they can choose the politics of divisiveness and find themselves as targets of economic boycotts and subject to costly litigation in the near future.”

But on the one-year anniversary of SB 1070, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer defended the legislation in spite of setbacks in the federal court system, asserting that Arizona is “stronger and more united than ever before in its resolve.”

Brewer credited SB 1070 for not only focusing national attention on an immigration crisis, but encouraging President Obama to dispatch National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border. She vowed to take the legal fight over SB 1070 to Supreme Court “if necessary.”

The Arizona governor cited unnamed polling and private donations of nearly four million dollars to the SB 1070 legal defense fund as evidence that public support for the law was strong.

Wade Henderson, head of the national Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights countered that resorting to private money to defend a state law “demonstrates a real lack of political support” for SB 1070.

“There’s a contradiction that needs to be exposed,” Henderson said, in answer to a question from this reporter about the issue of privatizing the legal defense of public policies which normally would be paid for by taxpayers.

To some extent, push back against strict immigration measures is underway within Brewer’s Republican Party. Somos Republicans (We Are Republicans), a Latino republican group that claims 6,000 members, is leading opposition to immigration hard-liners.

On its website, the group defines its guiding principles as free market capitalism, low taxes, gun ownership rights, pro-life, traditional marriage and “humane immigration reform” that conforms with the needs of a capitalist economy.

In a piece about Somos Republicans this month, conservative columnist Ruben Navarette Jr. quoted Somos Republicans’ leader, 39-year-old DeeDee Garcia of Scottsdale, Arizona.

“I started the group so people would know that not all Republicans are like (Maricopa County Sheriff) Joe Arpaio and (state Senate President)Russell Pearce,” Garcia told Navarette. The US Air Force veteran said her pro-immigrant activism has attracted interest from a number of Democrats, but urged the rival party to take on the immigration question head-on within its own ranks.

“I have enough on my plate going after racist Republicans,” Garcia was quoted. “I don’t have time to police racist Democrats too.”

While the momentum behind SB 1070-style laws could be dissipating, assorted controversies connected to immigration are still stewing in the political pots of different US states.

In New Mexico, for example, rancor over the practice of granting drivers’ licenses to people without social security numbers dominated much of the 2011 legislative session.

Flooding print media and cyber-space with letters and messages, supporters of doing away with drivers’ licenses for undocumented residents contended that New Mexico had become a lawless entity and a magnet for criminal rings engaged in fraudulently obtaining drivers’ licenses for unauthorized immigrants living in other states; some even suggested the Land of Enchantment could become an easy staging ground for terrorists.

A state House bill repealing the current drivers’ license law in question and backed by new Republican Governor Susana Martinez passed after unusual parliamentary maneuvering, but failed to survive in the state Senate.

In response to the repeal defeat, Governor Martinez and her office blasted the state Senate for maintaining a “dangerous status quo,” vowing “the fight will continue.” Martinez’s office maintained the repeal effort had the support of more than “70 percent of New Mexicans.”

On the other side of the debate, immigrant organizations and their allies testified in the state capital of Santa Fe about public safety and other benefits of having undocumented people who use the state’s roads duly licensed, registered, insured and tracked in the state’s record-keeping system.

The Santa Fe-based Somos un Pueblo Unido organization, the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Border Network for Human Rights, the ANSWER Coalition and other groups also staged pro-immigrant candle-light vigils and public demonstrations in at least 10 New Mexican cities.

In a statement, Somos un Pueblo Unido founding board member Maria Cristina Lopez characterized the drivers’ license brouhaha as having more to do with “politics and reelection campaigns” than with specific concerns about fraud or sound public policy. Lopez said the failure of repeal supporters to consider a compromise bill was proof of her position.

In a state where water shortages threaten environmental emergencies, and where an ongoing economic crisis was culturally symbolized this month with the decision of the 79-year-old New Mexico Symphony Orchestra to call it quits, it remains to be seen how much traction the drivers’ license issue will gain in the 2012 Legislature, which will convene during the pared-down Centennial celebration of New Mexico statehood.

Back on Capitol Hill, it is almost certain that comprehensive immigration reform will fail to fly in the current Congress, given the partisan split between a Republican-dominated House and a Democratic-controlled Senate. If no breakthrough is achieved, national immigration reform will not see any meaningful action until 2013 at the earliest.

As stop-gap measures, pro-immigrant forces are pressuring the Obama administration to suspend the deportation of undocumented young people, known as Dreamers, who were brought here as children, and end Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 287(g) program that deputizes local police to carry out federal immigration law enforcement functions.

The demands have the sympathetic ears of prominent individuals like Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank, Wade Henderson and many others in the law enforcement, civil rights, labor and religious communities.

Henderson attended last week’s White House meeting where President Barack Obama reiterated his pledge to work for comprehensive immigration reform.

But he predicted that it would be politically difficult for Obama to administratively halt deportations, and that it would require a bi-partisan initiative in the Congress to safeguard young people who arrived in this country through no fault of their own.

Henderson criticized attacks on immigrants as part of a broader assault on workers, the young, the poor and people of color, especially Latinos. He called the attacks part and parcel of a politicized, “coordinated campaign of subtle and not-so subtle intimidation.”

Whether immigration will re-emerge as an important issue in the 2012 elections is an open question. For now at least, the economy, the deficit and the crisis in the Arab world all overshadow an issue that counts decades without serious action at the federal level.

Meanwhile, to keep their cause alive in the public eye, immigrant rights advocates are gearing up for this year’s International Workers’ Day commemorations. May Day events are planned in San Francisco, Albuquerque, New York and other cities.

-Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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