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More Than a War of Words: Playing Political Football with Immigration

By Louis Mendoza, associate professor and chair of the Department of Chicano Studies at the University of Minnesota. IHRC Affiliated Faculty.

Last fall’s triumph at the polls by Democrats signaled possible action on a number of legislative fronts that had been stalled by a Republican Party divided against itself. Among the many issues which people hope to see meaningful action taken on is comprehensive immigration reform. Early indicators seem to suggest that despite the combination of a Democratic majority and a president favoring action on immigration, the topic will continue to lend itself to divisive politics among political representatives in Washington and around the nation.

Of course, though we often take it for granted, we would do well to keep in mind that political debates, public discussion, and media discourse on the topic shape our cultural common sense on the topic through language. Language shapes reality. The power to define people or phenomena establishes a framework of control or understanding. A University of Colorado professor reminds us that so powerful is language that the terms of the debate on immigration have already been set http://www.longmontfyi.com/Local-Story.asp?id=14340. Whether the discussion is about ‘undocumented immigrants,? or “illegal aliens,? about providing “amnesty? or a “pathway to citizenship? or any other of a number of contrasting terms does make a difference; but the battle for people’s sentiments has already been established by political and media pundits. Like stereotypes that endure over time, the images conjured up by these words have the power to invoke ready-made categories that defy reality.

Among the headlines this week were signs that local and national legislative efforts are gearing up for battle on both sides of the issue. In New York, pro-immigrant advocates expect to hold Governor Eliot Spitzer accountable for his campaign promise that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses http://www.thejournalnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070127/NEWS05/701270345/1021. Opponents argue that such a measure compromises national security: “"To think that we would put out the welcome mat to terrorists and illegal aliens five years after 9/11 is in my opinion, unconscionable," said Assemblyman Greg Ball, R-Carmel.? In contrast, proponents frame it as a practical matter that increases security and provides the financial responsibility that comes with insurance. “`The facts show that restricting immigrants' access to drivers' licenses does nothing to improve security,’ a Spitzer spokeswoman told The Associated Press in October. "All it does is drive immigrants into the shadows, creating a class of people with no public records." Currently, nine other states in the nation do not require lawful U.S. presence to get a license. In Massachusetts, among other states including Minnesota, legislators will be revisiting an in-state tuition bill. Though a version of the bill was defeated in the recent past some legislators who were against the legislation last time have expressed a willingness to revisit the issue. “Rep. Richard Ross, R-Wrentham, . . . agreed that legislators have a responsibility to revisit the proposal.?

A one-sided story in Atlantic City.com, calls to mind Governor Pawlenty’s report on the cost of undocumented immigrants to the state of Minnesota, without any consideration of the income they generate in the local economy or state tax coffers http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/news/story/7153085p-7008557c.html. Reading this, an uninformed reader would think that New Jersey is facing imminent collapse because of an immigrant drain on the economy. No doubt states are looking for solutions, but many of them are not counting on deferral legislation to address the local impact of immigration. Alabama legislators are gearing up for contentious proposals that will place a large burden of responsibility on employers with those who fail to comply facing possible jail time http://www.twincities.com/mld/twincities/16561561.htm. Here the consequences on the economy are clearly part of the debate. Boyd Campbell, a Montgomery attorney who specializes in immigration law, notes that “a ‘get tough’ policy on hiring immigrants could harm farmers and other employers who depend on immigrant workers. … He cited instances where peach farmers have needed hundreds of workers on short notice to save their crops during freezing weather.?

The first volley of immigration bills on Capitol Hill was passed by the senate this week http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/16547021.htm. “Federal contractors caught hiring illegal immigrants would be banned from government work for up to a decade under sanctions the Senate added unanimously to a minimum wage bill.? Not surprisingly, the bill, which requires punishment even if the hiring occurs inadvertently, prompted opposition from business leaders who feel that while the focus on federal employees who work in jobs that pertain to national security is understandable, the wholesale application to all government contractors will be unwieldy, burdensome, and potentially unfair. "The Sessions amendments are comparable to using the nuclear option for a paperwork violation," wrote Jeffrey D. Shoaf of the Associated General Contractors of America. Small businesses also feel that the conditions for exceptions favor large companies over small companies.

A cursory glance at these legislative proposals shows why comprehensive reform at the federal level is needed. Failure to act will result in piecemeal and localized approaches that are likely to vary widely by region and state. An LA Times editorial raises the specter, however, of federal legislators, primarily Democrats, avoiding the issue altogether as a way to keep the issue alive for the 2008 presidential race http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-ed-immig29jan29,0,7890768.story?coll=. The editorial asks: “Might Democrats be tempted to put off the issue in order to deprive the administration of a major domestic accomplishment? Will their embrace of economic populism translate into raising the drawbridge?? Such a move would not only be a sad commentary on American politics, it would also be a travesty for the lives of so many people to be passed around like a football because politicians are trying to use the issue to their advantage.


Louis Mendoza
Associate Professor
Department of Chicano Studies Chair
University of Minnesota
19 Scott Hall
72 Pleasant Street, Minneapolis 55455
Office: 612-624-8031
Email: lmendoza@umn.edu

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