Adios, Arizona, and immigration reform too

Henry Champ on the political reality that kills any real chance of immigration reform in the U.S.

Pictures of helmeted police arresting demonstrators protesting Arizona's new immigration law have filled the TV screens and the front pages of American newspapers these past few days.

An almost more surprising image is that former Republican president George W. Bush and his Democratic successor Barack Obama are pretty much in lockstep when it comes to the issue of Hispanic immigration, which is heightening emotions on both sides of the debate.

Maricopa County Sheriff's deputies process a suspect arrested during a crime suppression sweep in Phoenix on Thursday, July 29, 2010. Immigrant rights supporters had delayed the sheriff's plans with a rally at a downtown jail in opposition to Arizona's new immigration law. (Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)

The issues are straightforward.

Many Arizona citizens have felt for some time now that the wave of illegal immigration sweeping through their cities is fostering crime and contributing to unemployment as these new arrivals scoop up jobs at the lowest wage.

Public patience has run out. Send them home and tighten the border, Arizonans demanded Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who obliged with this tough new law.

At the last minute, a federal judge blocked some of the key elements that would have mandated police to verify the immigration status of everyone they detained or questioned; allowed for arrests, without a warrant, of suspected illegal immigrants; and made it a crime for immigrants not to carry registration papers.

Still, the bulk of the new provisions went into effect Thursday.

Mexico is now bracing for a sudden influx of returning migrants and many commentators believe the controversial law is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But back to Bush and Obama.

Against deportation

Both presidents tried to avoid deporting those so-called illegals who are honest and hardworking and who, frankly, make a huge contribution to the American economy.

The statistics of their worth are impressive. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, five per cent of the nation's workforce is comprised of unauthorized immigrants.

That figure swells to 19 per cent of building, grounds-keeping and maintenance workers, 17 per cent of the construction trades and 12 per cent of the food preparation and service industry.

Protesters against Arizona's new anti-immigration law gather in front of the courthouse in Phoenix on Thursday while scores of illegal day labourers touted for work openly in the city in defiance of the surviving clauses in the new law. (Rick Scuteri/Reuters)

Both Bush and Obama have understood how easy it is to argue that unemployed Americans could fill those jobs. But both are realistic enough to know that this is just not possible.

These jobs are less and less attractive even to jobless Americans and the economic upheaval of forcing out these migrant workers would be a catastrophe, particularly in the midst of a recession.

During his time as president, Bush had trouble with congressional Republicans who wanted "enforcement first" before agreeing to any kind of immigration reform.

Obama can't get congressional support from his folks either. They have their eye on the Hispanic vote and want a legalization program in place first before they will consider any other options.

So Bush, earlier, and Obama, now, have been forced politically and legally to enforce the laws on the books, build the fence higher and send them back. Stuck in the status quo.

Compromise unlikely

Increased security has lessened the inflow a small amount but at the same time it has created the situation where Obama will deport almost 400,000 illegal workers this year, which is a little more than the average in the Bush years.

Some will be criminals rounded up after being caught breaking the law, the majority will be those stopped for traffic violations, or caught in immigration raids of certain businesses and the like.

The number sent back is a small percentage of the 11 million or so illegal workers believed in the country, almost 60 per cent of whom are Hispanic.

Strangely enough, both Bush and Obama enjoyed public support for their immigration reform plans, which, though a bit vague at times, centred around some kind of amnesty for those illegals who had been in the U.S. for a while and had kept their noses clean.

This week, for example, a CNN/ Opinion Research poll found 81 per cent of respondents favoured "creating a program that would allow illegal immigrants already living in the United States to stay here and apply to legally remain in the country permanently if they had a job and paid back taxes."

With such a figure at hand, you might ask, why not seek a compromise between the two parties?

Obama could reach out to those Southwestern states by accepting a Republican plan to beef up the border and get tougher with repeat crossers.

In exchange, congressional Republicans might resurrect some of the Bush compromises, or even the earlier efforts of Arizona Sen. John McCain. 

Why not? Try one word: election.

The real world

McCain, facing a strong right-wing challenge in this fall's election, no longer favours accommodation. He is running on a get-tough enforcement policy.

On the Democratic side, those running for office in November fall into a dead faint if the words amnesty and immigration are mentioned in the same breath.

In the short term, Republicans see no reason to compromise because they believe the current situation favours them for the mid-term vote.

They will argue the federal government, by going to court over the Arizona law, is interfering with state rights.

It's a powerful argument appealing to not only true-blue conservatives but many in the independent ranks as well, as it is not just Arizona but 20 other states that have or are considering similar legislation.

There is also the argument, they will advance, that Washington is just not getting the job done.

In the longer term, many Democrats don't want to work with Republicans on immigration reform either because they believe that what is happening this fall — the chaos, the threats, the displacement within the Hispanic community — will weld that community to the Democratic party for years to come.

They will hammer away that what we are seeing in Arizona is a racist policy, and that hammering could help solidify Democratic ranks at the polling booth.

All of these arguments, of course, are being conducted in the face of reality.

The tree guy who is helping me fight an ivy attack in my yard is Hispanic. So are the ushers and the popcorn venders at the movie cinema my wife and I are planning to go to this afternoon.

At the hospital where I go for blood tests, the nurse is inevitably Hispanic. So is one of the scholarship recipients we are considering for Brandon University.

You have to know that at least one of these people is illegal. That is just the way it is.