PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
April 18, 2006

A Wake-up Call on Immigration

by Jim Newsom

The one law that even the most powerful of Washington politicians can neither circumvent nor ignore is the law of unintended consequences. This truth has been hammered home over the last few weeks as our country’s ever expanding Latino community has taken to the streets in peaceful protest against HR 4437, the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005.

This proposal, passed by the House of Representatives after being introduced in December by Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), aims “To amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to strengthen enforcement of the immigration laws, to enhance border security, and for other purposes” primarily through punitive measures.

Sensenbrenner, who was one of the managers in the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, one of the most powerful positions in Congress. (You may remember Peter Rodino in this role, chairing the impeachment hearings that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon 32 years ago.)

I hadn’t paid much attention to the immigration and border security debate until the latest batch of demonstrations last week. Frankly, I assumed it was primarily of interest only to residents and politicians in border states like Texas, Arizona and California. But watching a half million Hispanics marching through Dallas shouting “Si Se Puede!” (“Yes We Can!”), 50,000 in Washington, DC, and various sized crowds in other cities—including an estimated 30,000 in that Hispanic hotspot, St. Paul, Minnesota—I realized something is going on here, and I don’t know what to make of it or how I feel about it.

So I thought I’d look at the motivations of those who brought this issue up in the first place. I checked out Congressman Sensenbrenner. Turns out that he was one of the authors of the USA Patriot Act in 2001; at the hearings on that law’s renewal last summer, he banged his gavel and walked out of the room when Democrats brought up concerns about government abuse under its aegis. He’s also the guy who wanted to create an “office of inspector general for the federal judiciary” to give Congress the authority to punish judges if the legislative branch disagreed with their rulings.

But more pertinent to the issue at hand is this question: Why would a congressman from Wisconsin be so upset about immigration from south of the border? (I don’t think he’s motivated by hordes of illegal Canadians sneaking into his state.)

If you think about it, you know the answer: Immigration—in particular that involving dark-skinned non-English speakers—is a classic wedge issue, a distraction from the endless revelations and scandals du jour plaguing this Republican government. It’s an easy-to-demagogue issue that plays well to the racist yahoos the GOP depends on at election time—one of the TV images popping up last week was a bunch of Arizona good ole boys burning a Mexican flag in Tucson. And it is an issue that leaves many of the more thoughtful among us either confused or disinterested.

What I don’t know is who was crying out to put this on the front burner. I thought that Republicans had been trying to find a way to make up with Hispanic voters ever since California’s Proposition 187 in 1994 tried to deny education and public services to undocumented immigrants and their families. George W. Bush himself has tried his darnedest to capitalize on his brother Jeb’s Mexican wife.

It turns out that this is a non-winner for both Bush and the Republican congressional contingent. The president is losing some of the last few folks who still supported him—there’s a big rally set for early May in Crawford, Texas to support Sensenbrenner’s bill and oppose Bush’s “betrayal” on immigration. For Congress, there’s the coalition of business, labor and religious groups who oppose the bill and say it doesn’t actually solve the problem it supposedly addresses. The Hispanic community is suddenly energized, and not in a pro-Republican manner.

For those of us who were snoozing through this debate, the multitude of demonstrations across the country is waking us up, forcing us to look into the issue to find out what’s going on and where we stand. That’s the law of unintended consequences—when you bring up an issue for partisan purposes, once it bleeds into the public domain you no longer control what path it travels, how individuals react to it or where its final destination may be.

I have no idea where this is headed. But I am now paying attention.

copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.