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Thursday, January 08, 2004

Immigrant Song

President Bush is supposedly going to make a humanitarian move on immigration policy, that purports to make life for thousands of people who come to America seeking opporunity a little easier, with less fear of arrest, deportation, and explotation by unscrupulous employers.

So why am I suspicious? Is it due to the "Bush hatred" that the right wing and its lackeys in the mainstream media are obsessed with?

Well, I'm a little wiser now, that's why.

There have been times when this administration has proposed things that sound like good ideas, but when the rubber hit the proverbial road, for whatever reason, the end result was something quite different from what one may have hoped. So I'm not going to be fooled by this latest effort, and if that means I'm pleasantly surprised for once, so be it.

As one commenter on a blog I read frequently put it, "No Child Left Behind" became "Unfunded Mandated Testing For Everyone." The prescription drug benefit is a nightmare - an expensive and ineffective giveaway to drug companies ; even Bush's political team knows how bad that bill is, since it'll be a while before it even goes into effect. Bush has made all sorts of promises that sound good regarding assisting the fight against AIDS in Africa, and in federal assistance with helping New York City recover from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When it comes time to put up or shut up on those pledges, Bush is silent. Now maybe some of this can be blamed on Congress in general and the ultra-right House leadership in particular, but the White House isn't trying very hard to follow up on its grandiose promises. The only times the White House throws its weight around on Capitol Hill are on behalf of the its well-heeled cronies.

Perhaps this new immigrant policy, if it indeed ever came to pass, would strengthen the bargaining position of undocumented immigrants so that employers would not so easily hold the threat of deportation over their heads. (Although without further details that is far from a certainty, especially if it's tied to an existing job - an employer might literally have the power to deport its workers if they attempted to, say, organize or protest moves by management.)

To be sure, there are also some potential secondary benefits to this system in terms of security, since more immigrants will be easier for the government to track, and in terms of marginally increased income and payroll tax money revenue and more accurate assessments of the state of American workers by formalizing what is now a largely underground segment of the economy.

I hesitate to say that I'd oppose this initiative, since I want to keep an open mind as much as possible, but I have to say I'm still skeptical.

But, given this administration's track record on workers' rights, there are much cause to cast doubt their motives. The incentives to hire underground labor will remain the same for smaller businesses, barring a new effort to crack down on such employers, which I do not see coming anytime soon. The biggest potential difference maker is that large businesses such as Wal-Mart would have a new hiring option - paying lower wages and benefits to its employees, who will increasingly come from this "quasi-legal" group. (Wal-Mart and other large employers have of course hired illegal labor, but they are easier to catch, with greater risk of large fines and negative publicity.) Which will help bring America that much closer to being the low-tax, right-to-work, cheap-labor, banana republic that the far right has long dreamed of.

Putting on the analysts' hat for a moment:

Everyone in the trade is spinning this as beneficial to the GOP's efforts to compete for the Hispanic vote, which has not developed the same allergy to the Republican Party that African-American vote has. This explanation seems plausible enough, even if the immediate beneficiaries would not have voting rights. Karl Rove and company saw what happen to the post-Pete Wilson GOP in California and don't want it replicated nationwide.

However, while there will be some modcium of short-term goodwill among Hispanics, I'm unconvinced this new policy initiative will help the Republicans much. Particularly if the new policy never materializes (there's substantial opposition from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, possibly enough to kill it) or turns out much less favorable to the immigrant community that first impressions would suggest, the positive political effects will likely dissiapte. Indeed it would be far from the first time a Bush policy initiative turned out that way.

Not to mention that there's still a substantial faction of each party (but particularly among the Republican base) that finds the idea of loosening immigration policy abhorrent. I wouldn't suggest the Democratic nominee make an explicit move to cater to the Buchananites, mind you - I merely note that this initiative may backfire to the extent that it alienates some strongly Republican constituencies. Lost in all the talk about how important the Hispanic vote might be is the fact that a majority of American voters still favor "get tough" policies on immigration, particularly in a post-9/11 context.

It's hard to say whether or not Bush will benefit politically from this initiative or not.


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