Bush's Retreat on Immigration Reform
By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, July 21, 2004; Page A19
Marie Gonzalez sounds a bit like your classic Valley girl, punctuating her sentences with the obligatory "for sures" and "you knows." And, for sure, the 18-year-old, who graduated this spring from Helias High School in Jefferson City, Mo., seems in every way your normal American young woman -- on the tennis and track teams in high school, very involved with her parish, looking forward to college this fall. Well, conditionally looking forward to college.
For Marie, who seems to have stepped out of a 21st-century update of a Norman Rockwell tableau, has a problem: The government wants to deport her to Costa Rica. And Marie, whose parents brought her to the States when she was 5, faces the abrupt prospect of losing everything she has in all good faith worked for.
She can be forgiven for having thought she was leading a normal life. Her father, after all, worked as a courier in the office of the governor of Missouri. Her mother was a grade-school Spanish teacher. Her parents' initial visas had lapsed and they had been applying for naturalization, but they plainly lacked the proper documentation. Since this was discovered in 2002, they have been unable to work (though her mother still teaches Spanish on a volunteer basis). But for the support of the largely conservative, white parishioners in their church, the Gonzalez family would have been in desperate straits. Their straits are dire enough as is.
Marie's story, unfortunately, is not all that exceptional. Every year the government deports American teenagers -- who have gone to school here and are on their way to productive careers -- to Latin American and Caribbean nations they may not have seen since infancy. It's for that reason that legislators of both parties support the Dream Act, which would enable 65,000 high school graduates who are undocumented to become citizens if they complete college, and allow them to pay the in-state rate for tuition at public colleges and universities.
The Dream Act passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall, with heavy bipartisan backing and the support of Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch. But like the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act of 2003, or Ag Jobs, which also looked bound for passage until some recent mind-boggling legislative maneuvers, it has fallen prey to the Bush administration's reluctance to do anything that might rouse the ire of the nativist right.
The demise of Ag Jobs is particularly instructive; it was the first bill since God knows when that commanded majority support from each party's Senate delegation and from the unlikely duo of agribusiness and the United Farm Workers. For agribusiness, it would reestablish a guest worker program with far fewer procedural restrictions and a temporary moratorium on higher wages. For immigrant farm workers, it would hold out the promise of a path to legalization provided they worked at least 360 days in agriculture over a period of several years. In essence, it created a kind of regulated indentured servitude, with a binding commitment of legalized status at the end -- not the prettiest picture of how to become an American, perhaps, but one that met the needs of all involved parties.
Earlier this month, though, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist refused to let the bill come to a vote -- so adamantly, in fact, that he willingly doomed the business community's top legislative priority, a tort reform bill, to which Ag Jobs would have been attached as an amendment. Frist has no history of nativist passions; he was simply doing the bidding of the White House.
And the White House, it is clear, has made a strategic calculation. Karl Rove knows perfectly well that the Latino vote is growing and is an increasing factor in such swing states as Florida, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. But he also knows that the president's half-hearted steps toward immigration reform were greeted by a storm of protest from anti-immigrant forces in the very same states, and that Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) actually incurred a primary challenge (which he beat back) because he had co-authored Ag Jobs in the House.
So once again, George W. Bush has decided that the votes he'll fish for are all on the right. Gone are any illusions that he can do better among Latino voters than he did in 2000. Now, it's John Kerry who's campaigning on his support for Ag Jobs and the Dream Act, and immigrant rights advocates who are registering new voters by the tens of thousands in such immigrant-heavy locales as Orlando and Phoenix.
Marie Gonzalez just hopes the powers that be can resolve these matters quickly. "Our life is worth living," she says, "and they shouldn't be taking it away from us." For sure.
I erred last week in writing that the Senate was still sitting on 26 judicial nominations. They have in fact all been confirmed.
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