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Hagel-Martinez immigration bill:
How can they call this justice?

May 26, 2006 | Page 5

JUSTIN AKERS CHACÓN is the coauthor with Mike Davis of the upcoming book No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border. Here, he analyzes the latest version of immigration legislation nearing a vote in the Senate.

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IN THE wake of probably the biggest protests in U.S. history for the human and political rights of immigrant workers, Congress has been jolted into reacting.

Hear Justin Akers Chacón speak at Socialism 2006, a political conference scheduled for June 22-25 at Columbia Univerisy in New York City. For more information, go to the Socialism 2006 Web site at
The response has fractured the two mainstream political parties, but united those political leaders most committed to Corporate America to work for a "compromise"--one they hope can gain the support of enough liberals and conservatives to pass, while heading off the immigrant rights movement.

The latest version of the "compromise" legislation is known as the "Hagel-Martinez bill," after the two Republican senators, Chuck Hagel and Mel Martinez, who negotiated it. It shows just how out of touch the two parties are with working people.

The Democrats have used their position not to push for legalization or amnesty for the undocumented, but to suffocate these demands within the movement through their connections to moderate immigrant rights groups.

On the other hand, the right wing of the Republican Party is going to the wall to prevent any bill that includes a guest-worker program--no matter how much it criminalizes immigrant workers.

Shrieking "amnesty" to characterize any form of a guest-worker program has become the standard cry of the restrictionists in Congress--which places them far outside mainstream opinion. With rhetoric reminiscent of the Alamo, they have vowed to take a "last stand" in the House. As anti-immigrant leader Rep. Tom Tancredo promised, "No plan with amnesty and a massive increase in foreign workers will pass the House."

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THE MEGA-marches for immigrant rights have sunk the most harmful elements of the Sensenbrenner bill, passed by the House late last year, which would brand all undocumented immigrants as felons. This legislation is now politically impossible to pass in the Senate.

But the discourse about immigration within Congress is still narrowly focused on a debate that pits Corporate America (in favor of a guest-worker program) versus the far right (in favor of criminalization).

The current scramble in the Senate is to come up with a bill that is close enough to the Sensenbrenner bill (also known as HR 4437) so that the two versions can be reconciled and made into law.

While the initial immigrant rights protests put HR 4437 on life support, the latest bipartisan effort is to transplant its vital organs into a new body. In other words, while the mainstream of the Republican Party has had to distance itself from its far-right wing over the right's opposition to a guest-worker program, both they and the Democrats have surged to the right themselves on the question of criminalization, adding reactionary clauses to the "compromise" designed to attract the right's reluctant support.

Previous manifestations of the Senate legislation--starting with a proposal sponsored by Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy--were already a wish list for business interests and a major concession to the right wing.

The Hagel-Martinez version added on increased border militarization and punishments for employers who hire undocumented workers. Its main feature compared to previous proposals, though, is to divide the undocumented into three groups, based on how long they have lived in the U.S.

Those in the U.S. for less than two years would be required to leave immediately, and those in the U.S. for more than two years but less than five would have to go to a "border point of entry" and apply to return to their homes. The "path to citizenship" in Hagel-Martinez contains a maze of legal hurdles and waiting periods that make citizenship virtually impossible to attain for the majority of the rest.

Now, on top of this, the Senate has added amendments to expand the border wall, make English the "national language" and bar any immigrant ever convicted of one felony or three misdemeanors from applying for the "path to citizenship."

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has taken the unprecedented step of mobilizing the U.S. military--in the form of federalized National Guard troops--to engage in a domestic war against migration.

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THE MASS protests that stopped the Sensenbrenner bill showed that immigrant workers already in the U.S. are ready to fight back. This has led to a reorientation of anti-immigrant politics to take aim at the border and potential "future crossers."

This reorientation is also reflected by the fact that a majority of lawmakers in both parties are moving toward support of a guest-worker program. A guest-worker program would create a new segregated and exploited class of "temporary" workers, which is why Corporate America wants it. But its creation reflects an understanding that criminalization alone will only produce more resistance.

By shifting their focus to the border, the right wing can use rhetoric about the "war on terror" to silence any opposition to further militarization--on the grounds that this is necessary "to secure our borders." Evoking the phantom terrorist threat has become the standard practice to silence a discussion of what is actually happening.

Rather than close a haven for terrorists, border militarization has already made the Southwestern region of the U.S. a killing field for migrants--with the number of border crossers who die each year numbering more than 400.

In all the discussion of immigration legislation, not one mainstream commentator or politician has acknowledged this reality--ignoring what amounts to a September 11 tragedy every nine years.

Instead, the Senate and George Bush callously pushed increased border militarization last week with their eyes on winning the grand prize--a guest-worker program.

On May 17, the Senate voted overwhelmingly for an amendment to Hagel-Martinez that would build at least 370 miles of double- and triple-layered fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, plus reinforce barriers at existing crossing points in Arizona. It also gives carte blanche for any further construction, to be determined as needed--and extends 500 miles of "vehicle barriers" to ensure crossers remain on foot.

The bill passed by an 83-16 vote, with 28 Democrats backing it, including California Sens. Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and New York's Hillary Clinton.

At a projected cost of $1 billion, this incremental expansion of the border wall would ultimately achieve what the Sensenbrenner bill promised, but couldn't produce--a contiguous border wall. As Illinois Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin recognized, the proposal is "a down payment for a fence of 2,000 miles," the length of the U.S.-Mexico border. "That would be the end result."

Bush added his own support for border militarization by announcing his plan last week to deploy 6,000 National Guard troops to the four Southwestern border states to aid in enforcement. In what amounts to a plea to right wingers in the House, Bush hopes this will seal a compromise deal.

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IN ANOTHER twist on criminalization, the Senate agreed to an amendment that would make English the "national language" of the U.S.

This panders to the racist idea that immigration "degrades American culture." While packaged as a means to "unify the nation," this amendment is less about promoting English and more about criminalizing Spanish.

As a May 19 press release of the National Council of La Raza points out, "The fact is, more than 90 percent of Americans already speak English. This amendment is so poorly conceived that it would cause serious harm to millions of Americans, while not helping a single person to learn English."

While the amendment doesn't specifically mention Spanish, it is clearly directed at the Latino, Spanish-speaking population.

The language of the amendment--sponsored by Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma--states that "unless otherwise authorized or provided by law," the government has no obligation to provide any services or information in any language except in English. "The real muscle of it is that it clarifies that there is not an entitlement to receive federal documents and services" in anything but English, said Inhofe spokesperson Ryan Thompson.

In other words, the amendment can be used to deny voter materials, legal documents, educational materials and other essential information in Spanish or other languages. It could be used as a means to punish Spanish-speakers in the classroom, in the workplace and even in public places.

If passed, the amendment could effectively end all remaining bilingual education programs, and be used as a means to track monolingual, Spanish-speaking children into remedial courses--something reminiscent of the Jim Crow era.

The criminalization of the Spanish language is a foreseeable consequence of the racism embodied in the "illegalization" of human beings, the construction of border walls, and the climate of fear and ignorance generated by desperate politicians and vigilantes.

The new round of attacks on immigrants--ostensibly to produce a "compromise" immigration bill--is in fact an attempt to recover the main objectives of the Sensenbrenner bill. Policy-makers are determined to push through some form of legislation that both criminalizes immigrant workers and provides cheap, segregated labor to big business.

Some commentators described the right-wing tilt of the Hagel-Martinez legislation as a "backlash" against the immigrant rights protests. But in reality, the new mass movement taking shape in the streets is a backlash against a decades-long war on working people.

While Congress arrogantly decides the fate of millions in Washington--for the benefit of the very few--immigrant workers and civil rights activists across the country need to plan their next move, for the benefit of all working people.

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