SAN DIEGO — U.S. Border Patrol agents battle a primitive hazard on the U.S.-Mexico border: rock throwing. Smugglers will give kids a few pesos to hurl stones and bits of concrete at agents in order to distract them. Meanwhile, a few miles away, the smugglers move their illicit cargo into the United States.
In Washington, lawmakers in both parties use a similar strategy when piecing together immigration reform proposals. They throw in an inflammatory item that they know will be controversial so they can deflect everyone’s attention away from the really crucial element of the proposal. Americans fall for this trick every time. We’re largely ignoring what we should be talking about. And what we think is important really doesn’t matter much.
What does matter to politicians? You already know the answer. It’s always about the money. Democrats get money from labor and Republicans get it from business. Those are the interests that are going to be protected.
In the Senate, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposes doing four things: building a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants; improving legal immigration by making it easier to retain high-skilled immigrants; tightening restrictions and penalties on employers to prevent them from hiring illegal immigrants; and creating a temporary guest worker program for the agricultural industry.
In the House, another bipartisan group is working on a similar piece of legislation.
And finally, the White House is now circulating a draft of its own immigration proposal, which seems to take a harder line than expected. The plan would give illegal immigrants the chance to escape deportation by becoming a “Lawful Prospective Immigrant.” But immigrants would still have to apply for such status and not have it granted automatically, as some reformers demand. Nor would the path to a green card be as quick as the reformers would like; immigrants could get their documents in about eight years. Citizenship would take even longer. When all is said and done, we’re likely talking about 10-13 years for someone to go from illegal immigrant to U.S. citizen.
That isn’t exactly like the express lane at the supermarket, no matter what critics say.
Naturally, the proposed pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants is all anyone is talking about. How long should it take? How difficult should it be?
Yet, the real deal-breaker – the guest worker plan – is something that isn’t getting much attention. The immigration debate doesn’t revolve around border security or what restrictionists call “amnesty.” It revolves around the idea of bringing into the United States a few hundred thousand temporary foreign workers to do what George W. Bush used to call “jobs that Americans won’t do” – primarily on farms and ranches.
For politicians, guest workers are where the money is. Labor wants to kill the idea, and business wants to save it. And both sides are prepared to spend a fortune to get their way. Negotiations between the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are going nowhere. Neither side will budge on the issue of guest workers.
We’ve seen this before – in 2006 and 2007 – when Congress previously attempted immigration reform. Back then, as you’ll recall, Americans argued at the top of their lungs over whether to legalize the undocumented. It got ugly. But when compromise bills went down in flames – due to an unholy alliance between pro-labor Democrats and nativist Republicans, neither of whom was thrilled by the prospect of legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants – it was entirely because of guest workers.
In 2007, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., proposed an amendment designed to kill an immigration reform bill by removing language calling for guest workers. Followers of the legislation knew that this would eliminate Republican support for the bill, and that Democrats were splintered and thus didn’t have the votes to carry the bill over the finish line on their own. The Dorgan amendment passed the Senate by a vote of 49-48. The language on guest workers came out. Republicans retreated. And sure enough, the bill died.
Six years later, note that one thing missing from the White House immigration plan is any mention of guest workers. This should come as no surprise to those who have been paying attention.
Among those voting in favor of the Dorgan amendment was a young Democratic senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. Promises and pretty words notwithstanding, he was against immigration reform then and he’s not serious about it now.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.