By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 6, 2006 10:16 AM
When the House of Representatives passed the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act last month, it bowed to the narrowest possible thinking on immigration. The bill, one of the harshest in decades, would fund the building of nearly 700 miles of new high-tech fences along the U.S.-Mexico border and make illegal immigration a felony. Any U.S. citizen found driving an immigrant anywhere -- even to a hospital or school -- could be arrested as an "alien smuggler" if the immigrant were determined to be here illegally.
There is no question that this country's changing demographics through immigration have become a source of increasing tension and discomfort. The House's action appears to be in response to the few strident voices that have taken advantage of this growing anxiety to hype the sentiment that illegal immigrants are lawbreaking invaders who deserve to be punished or deported. For someone outside of the U.S. looking in, it may well seem justified to conclude that the quintessential country of immigrants is backtracking.
The fact, however, is that the majority of Americans hold a more complex view about illegal immigration. Recent polls suggest that they are unsure of how to fix the immigration system, but are more certain that a strategy which merely punishes illegal immigrants is simply insufficient.
In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, conducted Dec. 15-18, 61 percent of respondents said they would rather see these immigrants offered a chance to keep their jobs and apply for legal status than be deported. Similarly, 58 percent of respondents to a poll of registered Republican voters conducted for the Manhattan Institute in October favored earned legalization for all illegal immigrants. Also, two-thirds of these Republican voters said they would have a more favorable view of President Bush if he supported such a plan.
Now, certainly most Americans are against illegal immigration and are frustrated enough by it that they believe it should be a national priority. After Iraq, the economy and health care, Americans see immigration as the fourth most important problem Congress should deal with this year, according to the Post-ABC poll.
Tapping dissatisfaction over immigration would seem to be the politically savvy thing to do and surely the House bill was motivated just as much by a political calculation than outright disdain for illegal immigrants. But by approving legislation that is purely punitive, the House may have ensured larger negative consequences.
For starters, the House's action may have killed any immigration reform for 2006. After its winter recess, the Senate is expected to begin work on a broader immigration package and reject the narrow House bill. Even if the Senate can pull together legislation, the House, according to veteran Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., has done all that it intended to do for now -- that is provide "political cover" to those who want to look tough on immigration in an election year.
Kolbe, who supports a broader approach, believes that many of his colleagues in the House would not want to be caught anywhere near a bill similar to what the Senate is likely to push forward. "They are certainly not going to want to vote ... a bill that they see as politically very dangerous dealing with guest workers, or heaven forbid, even legalization of illegal immigrants who are in the country," Kolbe said in a recent interview. If Kolbe is right, the House chose political posturing over headway on immigration.
In doing so, the House may be alienating the Hispanic electorate, the fastest-growing voting group in the country. Two years ago Republicans made significant gains among Hispanic voters with their hard-line stances against abortion and same-sex marriage. Similar determination against immigration, however, seems likely to backfire. According to Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, "The political analysis that (playing tough against immigration) is good politics is a mistake." Munoz cited last year's defeat of Jerry Kilgore, the republican candidate for governor in Virginia who used his anti-illegal-immigration toughness as a distinguishing mark from his opponent.
Meanwhile, continued inaction on a serious policy issue that touches more and more Americans is bound to create more frustration with Washington and more support for change. Clearly, lasting immigration reform is up to those who would chose to lead, rather than just follow a few strident voices.