Don’t Look to Democrats for Immigrant Rights

November 1, 2007


(somewhat re-purposed and watered down (by my editors at NAM, who apparently fear the mere mention of the word “capitalism”) version of a previous post. And I love NAM, but detest the “ethnic” label.)

Don’t Look to Democrats for Immigrant Rights

New America Media, Commentary, Roberto Lovato, Posted: Oct 31, 2007

Editor’s Note: The DREAM Act was a major blow to undocumented immigrants, but the real threat is the Democratic tilt toward anti-immigrant sentiment. New America Media contributor Roberto Lovato is based in New York City.

After the death of the DREAM Act last week, Monday’s Democratic debate gave immigrants and their defenders even more to mourn. Sen. Chris Dodd, who has tried to court immigrant votes with his Spanish fluency, floated a new campaign tactic. Dodd declared that drivers’ licenses are “a privilege, not a right,” referring to New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to offer a different type of licenses to undocumented immigrants. Sen. Hillary Clinton flip-flopped around the issue. “They are driving on our roads,” said Clinton, only to dispute Dodd’s claim that she supported the policy.

The real threat looming on the electoral horizon is that more and more Democrats are joining Republicans in capitulating to the public antipathy against immigrants.

Among these disconcerting developments were statements about immigration made last week by Illinois Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the powerful chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and an architect of the Democratic congressional victories of 2006. Immigration “has emerged as the third rail of American politics, and anyone who doesn’t realize that isn’t with the American people,” Emanuel was quoted as saying. He also added, “This issue captures all the American people’s anger and frustration not only with immigration, but with the economy. This is a big problem.”

As one of the top Democrats central to plotting strategy and raising money towards their 2008 campaigns, Emanuel is nothing less than dangerous. Such statements mean that candidates and incumbents need to stay away from immigration issues. Dodd’s anti-immigrant debut and Clinton’s vacillation seamlessly follow the script written by the Democratic moneymen and strategists like Emmanuel. And the debate was just the latest performance.

Consider the theatrics given us by the crop of recently elected “pragmatists” like Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill. Both ran to the hard right of even the most basic immigration reforms earlier this year. And when the DREAM Act came up for a vote last Tuesday, they joined the Republicans in denying the “dream” to immigrant students.

To know where this comes from one needs to look back to 1994 – the beginning of contemporary anti-immigrant politics in the form of California’s Proposition 187, which sought to deny health and education benefits to the children of the undocumented. Most students of immigration politics trace the origins of the Republican anti-migrant kulturkampf (culture war) to then-California Gov. Pete Wilson and the Republican Party. But along with Wilson and his dour republicans, Pres. Bill Clinton also played a major role.

As the search for a new approach to immigration politics begins, it is important to remember that the exponential increase in immigrant deaths in the desert began not with the patrols of aging Minutemen but with Clinton, who launched “Operation Gatekeeper” in 1994. Two years later, Clinton also signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing, which criminalized immigrants, and subsumed immigration law under criminal law, in a process some legal scholars call “crimmigration.”

That the Democrats are, once again, starting to march against migrants is less a signal to the Republican movement than a sign of something else. Rather than continue DREAM Acting with Democrats, the immigrant rights movement may see the need to get back to what first brought immigrants – and many in this country – hope: power-building and direct action like last year’s marches.

The very possibility of the DREAM Act and of “immigration reform” itself was not born in the rotting bosoms of the two parties. It was born of dreaming and acting on the part of those with nothing to lose. Elections and politicians alone will not solve either the immigration crisis or the even greater general social crisis that approaches. Politicos need to be inspired by or scared of immigrant power from below.

Until immigrant power makes itself better known through intelligent strategy and intrepid action, the Democrats will continue the rightward tilt seen in the recent debate and the DREAM Act will remain dead.

Time to DREAM – and Act.

5 Responses to “Don’t Look to Democrats for Immigrant Rights”

  1. EYES OF TEXAS Says:

    Why do people continue to blur the line between legal immigration and illegal immigration? The issue has nothing to do with those that follow the laws and enter the U.S. as provided by those laws. It is the illegal aliens from almost every country in the world that has split this country into two halves; those that support illegal immigration and those that demand legal immigration. A blanket amnesty will never get passed the Senate as long as our representatives continue to listen to their constituents and not to illegal aliens and their supporters.

    Both of the past amnesty bills (B/K Bill & Dream Act) were so full of loop holes and opportunities for fraudulent documents, there was no way they could have passed. Until our borders are 100% secure, American citizens will not settle for anything less than total enforcement of all existing immigration laws.

  2. cynara Says:

    Hey Mr Lovato,
    We went to town commenting on your article over a the HuffPo:

    (Though, sadly, most of it was about illegal immigration in general, not just the Dream Act.) Anyhow, wouldn’t mind hearing your opionion on our opinions. Got any comments you’d like to add?


  3. […] to advertise on Lou Dobbs or make contributions to Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner or Dollarcrat Rahm Emmanuel. Overcoming this requires long term thinking beyond the box of the TV set and the US […]

  4. […] response to what they perceive as DCCC Chair Rahm Emmanuel’s rightward tilt on immigration,  local groups in his district have taken out English, Spanish and Korean ads in local media […]

  5. Eric Roth Says:

    So what’s your conclusion? What should advocates for a more humane, rational, and safe immigration policy do?
    Perhaps adopt an enformcement first + path to legalization approach is the way to go. I would also suggest strongly pushing for expanding educational opportunities for all immigrants to improve their English skills. La Raza made a huge mistake in both opposing making English the official language and advocating bilinqualism. The implicit message from this misguided advocacy group to American citizens is “you must change, your laws don’t matter, and we want to take over.” What a huge public relations mistake!
    It’s far better to build on widespread common interest like improving public schools, acknowledging fears of open borders in an age of Islamic terrorism, and expanding opportunities to learn English. We want to unite America, not divide the country so everybody has to compromise a bit – including the least powerful, least wealthy, and least legal. Why continue to play a losing hand? Why not switch a smarter, better, and more plausible strategy?

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