The defeat of the big immigration bill in the U.S. Senate yesterday ends, for now, a saga that began last year with massive demonstrations in Los Angeles and other cities around California and much of the country and confident predictions that “the wave of history,” as one organizer put it, would sweep over the political process and create a new era. But the wave crested and broke, and the actual legislation proved toxic to key elements in both major political parties.
Last year, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spoke at a huge rally in LA. California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez helped lead a big march, then conferred in Washington with Senator Ted Kennedy, author with Republican John McCain of the bill to provide a pathway to legalization for 12 million illegal immigrants, increase border security, and create guest worker programs. It was a very heady time.
This year, demonstrations were much smaller, and Villaraigosa was out of town, touring Latin America at the time when police indiscriminately attacked protesters and journalists in his city’s MacArthur Park. The wheels on the unstoppable movement were coming off even before that. So what happened yesterday wasn’t much of a surprise.
After going down earlier this month on a procedural vote following the sunsetting of its guest worker program at the insistence of organized labor, the Senate comprehensive immigration revamp measure was revived, only to go down again yesterday on what most say is the final attempt before the 2008 elections. The bill needed 60 votes to end debate and move forward. It received only 46. Of which only 12 were Republican, yet another sign of the dramatically downsized influence of President George W. Bush.
Even had the bill managed to get out of the Senate, it likely would have languished in the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi had told Bush he needed to provide 70 Republican votes there, as many Democratic members of Congress are opposed.
Indeed, most of organized labor — as I predicted last year when the immigration issue emerged as a frontburner matter following large demonstrations around the country — is opposed to this bill, which would provide a pathway to legalization for the 12 million or so illegal immigrants already here, some new border controls, and a large guest worker program. That ran very contrary to the claims made widely by enthusiasts for legalization and more immigration.
Although Republicans are getting the credit or blame, depending upon one’s perpsective for killing the bill, it’s interesting how little Democratic presidential candidates referred to it, much less championed it. They will all privately breathe a sigh of relief that they needn’t deal with it in their campaigns.
On the Republican side, everyone was opposed except John McCain, who co-authored the bill with Democratic Ted Kennedy. Having recovered from a poor start to this campaign, McCain saw his campaign smothered by the immigration issue. If he is to have a chance at the nomination, which he still does, he needed this bill to lose. Though I doubt he saw it that way.
McCain had seen his support in primaries around the country melt down over the perception that he was supporting “amnesty” for illegal immigrants already here — “criminal aliens” in the superheated parlance of the right and “undocumented workers” in the politically correct language of the left — and doing nothing of importance to secure the border against new illegal immigrants. Frontrunner Rudy Giuliani, a Republican moderate on the issue, piled on, noting that the bill lacked security provisions to identify and follow the movements of illegal immigrants.
On the other side of the spectrum, advocates heady with the enthusiasm of last year’s mass demonstrations claimed a united front that never actually existed. Support for humane and realistic treatment of illegal immigrants already here, many of them working jobs Americans don’t want, didn’t equate to support for a de facto open borders policy, which is how many viewed the bill. And more specifically to the point, claims of the backing of organized labor were vastly overblown.
While some unions have flourished by organizing illegal immigrants into their membership base, most of labor opposed the legislation, on account of its very liberal guest worker provisions. While these made some on the left, looking for ways to increase the number of people coming across the border, and many in the corporate world, looking for an assured supply of low-cost labor, they were anathema to most of labor.
For two reasons. First, they feared that guest workers would end up competing with their workers. Second, they believed that a larger supply of low-cost labor would have a down draft effect on wages overall.
There were other problems, of course, including the sense that the bill would make for a growing presence of unassimilated residents. Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Edwards both called for requirements that immigrants learn English.
But the deepest problem was that it was being pushed by a president, George W. Bush, who is highly distracted and lacks fundamental credibility as a leader. In order to solve this terribly complex issue in a humane and sophisticated way, serious presidential leadership will be required. With Bush’s head stuck in the miasma of his Iraq policy, his credibility burnt down to the waterline by the same, that was simply absent.
Your posts are welcome in the Forum.