Backlash against the Backlash Grows
By Frank Sharry
If 2005 was the Year
of the Minutemen, 2006 is becoming the Year of Immigrants
Rising. Just look at the tens of thousands of immigrants
who marched in downtown Chicago last March 11 for
immigrant rights and against restrictive immigration
Less than three months ago, the leadership of the
House of Representatives, in a vicious act of "drive-by"
legislating, rushed through a bill that experts
consider to be the most anti-immigrant piece of
legislation in the United States in 80 years.
Here are some of the lowlights of the Sensenbrenner
bill, HR 4437:
-- 11 million undocumented immigrants would be declared
"aggravated felons" for having come to
this country to do back-breaking work at low wages
in order to feed their families.
-- Priests, nuns, health care workers and other
helpers would be threatened with jail time for assisting
-- Local police would have to enforce federal immigration
laws, undermining community policing strategies
meant to build confidence between police and immigrant
-- Day labor sites would be shut down by federal
law, overruling the hard work of activists and enlightened
local communities attempting to solve problems caused
in part by Congressional inaction on comprehensive
-- Seven hundred miles of walls would be built between
the United States and our friendly neighbors to
the south, an act that has touched off a diplomatic
crisis with Latin America.
politicians who cooked up this bill were undoubtedly
pleased with their handiwork. They wanted their
colleagues to go back to their districts over the
holidays with something to crow about on talk radio
and at town hall meetings. The lucky were invited
to the Lou Dobbs show.
But politics is like physics: For every action there's
a reaction. What looked so tempting last year is
looking counterproductive this year. It seems the
House anti-immigrant tantrum has angered and activated
immigrants, their allies, religious leaders and
local governments like never before. Here is are
some recent events:
-- On March 7, over 30,000 immigrants showed up
on the west lawn of the US Capitol in Washington,
DC, to protest the Sensenbrenner bill and to call
for legalization. Families came from work and from
up and down the East Coast to show their faces and
raise their voices. Many carried simple homemade
signs that said, "I am not a criminal."
Later that week Chicago was the scene of a rally
that according to police drew at least 100,000 immigrants,
and organizers claimed drew over 300,000. Both the
Chicago and DC rallies were marked by unprecedented
cooperation between the labor movement, immigrants
rights advocacy organizations and community organizations
led by immigrants.
-- Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles recently announced
that if the Sensenbrenner bill becomes law he will
instruct his priests to defy it and provide services
to the undocumented, even if it means going to jail.
-- City councils and county supervisors from Southern
California to Ohio and Massachusetts are passing
resolutions against the Sensenbrenner bill and calling
for comprehensive reform that puts immigrants onto
a path to citizenship.
Beyond Chicago, in Portland, Ore., 5,000 people
protested HR 4437. Religious leaders are staging
vigils in Ohio. Activists are demonstrating in the
Michigan State House, and immigrants are pouring
into Washington, DC, to lobby for comprehensive
reform along the lines of the McCain-Kennedy bill
pending in the Senate. When Sen. John McCain traveled
to Miami and New York to talk about immigration
reform, 1,000 immigrants showed up in each city
-- Even the undocumented Irish from the New York
and Boston are becoming active. Some 2,000 descended
on Washington, DC, this week. Wearing T-shirts emblazoned
with green lettering that said "Legalize the
Irish," they lobbied lawmakers to back the
McCain-Kennedy bill with its earned legalization
-- The business community is also upset over the
Sensenbrenner bill. Groups of employers are flying
into Washington, DC and demanding meetings with
their representatives. Their message: they need
immigrant workers and want to see their work force
legalized, not deported.
Call it the backlash to the backlash. Some are even
calling the passage of the Sensenbrenner bill the
"Proposition 187 moment" of this decade,
referring to 1994, when California Gov. Pete Wilson
and the Republican Party won re-election by supporting
the anti-immigrant ballot initiative Prop. 187.
The measure and the ugly campaign for it so angered
Latino and Asian immigrants that it led to a surge
in citizenship and voting that threw the Republican
Party out of virtually every statewide office for
Obviously, some Republicans understand that supporting
immigrants is good for the country and their party.
Sen. McCain of Arizona, a leading contender for
the 2008 Republican nomination for president, gets
it. So do some of his possible rivals for the Republican
nomination, Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Chuck
Hagel of Nebraska.
But more typical of the current thinking in GOP
leadership circles is Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee.
He's gearing up to usher a Sensenbrenner-like bill
in the Senate, presumably to score points with the
same rabid anti-immigrant crowd the House played
to. He probably thinks it will help him in the GOP
Well, Pete Wilson thought his 1994 anti-immigrant
platform would help his 1996 run for president.
But his role in turning California from a purple
state into a blue one and his reputation as a polarizing
figure in immigrant communities made Wilson so radioactive
no national politicians will be seen with him to
Think about it. Over the past three decades, the
GOP has systematically targeted employers, Catholics
and Hispanics in order to forge a governing majority.
Now, House Republican leaders are targeting employers,
Catholics and Hispanics in order to appease talk
radio hosts and the loud-but-not-large anti-immigrant
Here's a political prediction: over time, the Minuteman
vote will pale in comparison to the political tsunami
gathering strength in immigrant communities and
among pro-immigrant constituencies across America.
- New America Media