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Gabriel Arana: The Immigration-Enforcement Trap

Progressives are trying to win on immigrant rights by veering right, but this will ultimately make comprehensive reform harder to achieve.

After Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona signed a draconian new immigration bill last week, immigration reform vaulted to the top of the progressive priority list. On Saturday, immigrant-rights demonstrators in nearly a hundred cities will call on the president to pass reform legislation to override the Arizona law, which criminalizes undocumented immigrants' presence and requires officers to question anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally.

The Center for American Progress (CAP), the country's premier liberal think tank, and America's Voice, a pro-immigration lobbying group, were quick to join Democratic lawmakers in denouncing the bill. But the Arizona law is actually a more extreme version of "tough on immigration" policies these organizations have espoused in recent years. Since the last push for immigration reform failed in 2007, CAP, America's Voice, and their allies on the left have been actively advocating for stricter enforcement, which usually means sealing our Southern border, and have adopted rhetoric that portrays undocumented immigrants as criminals who need to "get right with the law" and "pay their debt to society."

The conventional explanation for progressives' shift to the right on certain immigration questions is their desire to appeal to a general public that, especially since September 11, supports enforcement and, with the onset of the recession, fears immigrants are taking American jobs. A bill that appears tough on immigration but also contains a provision to grant undocumented immigrants citizenship will be easier to push through Congress, or so the logic goes.

While well-intentioned, this strategy has a fatal flaw. In kowtowing to anti-immigrant sentiment, progressives have helped move the political conversation on immigration to the right. Ultimately, this will make the public even less likely to support legislation that contains a citizenship provision. Shifting messaging on immigration to assuage nativist fears has undermined progressive groups' ultimate goal of allowing the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country to become citizens.

After a stinging defeat on immigration in 2007, Democrats noticed Republicans and some state-level Democrats running -- and winning -- on tough-on-immigration platforms. In anticipation of the 2008 elections, congressional Democrats introduced an enforcement-only bill that did not include a "path to citizenship" for the undocumented. Some Democrats also supported a Republican bill protecting employers who imposed "English only" rules. The shift sparked outrage among Hispanic members of Congress. "We're tired of people trying to scapegoat the immigrants or Hispanics as a platform," Rep. Joe Baca told the Los Angeles Times. "Republicans have done it, and Democrats have followed … because they're afraid they're going to lose their elections."

With the help of groups like CAP and America's Voice, the "tough on immigration" approach became an enduring platform. A July 2008 memo by a Democratic polling firm instructed the two organizations to say they support "requiring legal status" -- the key word being "require" -- instead of "a path to citizenship" for the undocumented. The memo also urged advocates to focus on involving employers in weeding out undocumented immigrants. The suggested talking points sound like Tea Party outbursts; they emphasize being "tough," getting our immigration system "under control," "securing our border," and "requiring" undocumented workers to register or "be sent home."

Soon after receiving the polling memo, CAP sent a memo of its own, titled "Groundbreaking Messaging on Immigration," to Democratic staffers on the Hill. "The new message frame may allow some Democratic incumbents and challengers to go on the offensive with immigration, proves to be resilient to Republican attacks, and breaches the differences between the overall electorate and Hispanic voters on this issue," wrote Winnie Stachelberg, senior vice president for external affairs at CAP.

The new framing caught on more broadly among groups that support immigrant rights, as Tom Barry, director of the Center for International Policy's TransBorder project, has extensively documented. In an open letter to Congress, immigrant-rights advocacy groups -- including the National Council of La Raza, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association -- adopted the proposed language in calling for immigration reform. The Democratic Party amended its platform to read, "We must require them to come out of the shadows and get right with the law." What these talking points amount to is a portrayal of undocumented immigrants as criminals.

CAP, America's Voice, and other pro-immigrant groups claim their basic reform goal is for people to be able to keep their families together, participate in their communities, and live life without fear of deportation. But listening to these organizations discuss the issue, you'd hardly know it. In July 2008, CAP released a summary of Democrats' "immigration accomplishments" that included expanding the fence another 320 miles, funding an additional 4,500 detention beds, and ramping up the E-Verify system, which enables employers to check an employee's immigration status. The latest immigration legislation, a 26-page bill released yesterday by Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, contains 17 pages devoted to strengthening enforcement.

Last month, CAP put out a study, "Securing our Borders," which focused on ways of better implementing a "virtual fence" along the border with Mexico. On a press call with reporters about the report, CAP representatives repeatedly returned to the idea of using unmanned drones and surveillance cameras to police the area. They also suggested involving civic organizations by, for instance, having community colleges teach courses on border security. Maegan Ortiz at VivirLatino, who was on the call, mockingly summarized CAP's approach to immigration as "reform in order to increase its enforcement." She quipped, "Ain't American Progress beautiful?"

Ensuring an orderly flow of people and goods through the border is a worthy goal, but as Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano recently pointed out, the number of agents stationed there has nearly doubled since 2004. The Obama administration's 2011 budget proposes huge increases in funding for training new agents, implementing the virtual fence, and stepping up use of the E-verify system. Short of sending in the military, as Republicans like John McCain suggest, that's about as tough as we can get on border policing. And even the toughest border policies would do little to stop the influx of immigrants, given that most undocumented immigrants actually enter legally and overstay their visas.

The harm isn't just that progressive groups are supporting programs and using rhetoric that stigmatizes the vulnerable immigrant community. They have also empowered restrictionist groups across the country, which have proliferated in the past few years. Progressives have failed to provide a counterweight to anti-immigrant sentiment, and that failure has helped move the national conversation on immigration further right. Arizona's unjust new law is simply an extreme example of where anti-immigrant "lawbreaking" rhetoric can lead.

If the left wants to support immigrants, it should boldly advocate for their rights -- not for unmanned drones to monitor them.

Gabriel Arana is on staff at The American Prospect. He lives in Washington, D.C.


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