They Wanted to Drive Out the “Aliens”, but Ousted Themselves
                              
 (Originally published in Kokata's Bangla daily Ananda Bazar Patrika on November 06, 2006)

                                                      
Partha Banerjee

Published on December 19, 2006

Bush, Cheney and Rove smelt disaster months ago. Therefore, they needed some scapegoats to salvage the November elections. The undocumented immigrant workers and their families became their convenient horse to whip.

 

Since the countrywide immigrant uprising earlier this year – termed a new civil rights movement by its leaders – conservative media anchors began an onslaught on the vulnerable and politically disempowered immigrants. Aided with lies, half-truths and biased information provided by them and also by anti-immigrant groups, far-right politicians impressed upon many Americans to believe that the 12 million “illegal aliens,” a less than three percent of U.S. population, were responsible for much of our economic, social and political woes. Relentless propaganda created myth that newly-arriving Spanish-speaking Mexican and Latin American immigrants would throw our country into social anarchy. Groups such as Federation for American Immigration Reform alleged that permitting undocumented immigrant mothers to give birth to their babies at U.S. hospitals would be a grave danger, because, according to them, the families would use the future U.S. citizens as “anchor babies” to permanently live here. We were asked to believe that any basic right and privilege such as a Bangladeshi or Egyptian Muslim “alien” owning a driver’s license would tantamount to harboring terrorists, leading to another September 11.

 

Essentially, right-wing politicians created a climate of mass hysteria to win the ballots. The election results, however, showed that their politics of division and hatred failed miserably.

 

A few anti-immigrant Congress members have, however, retained their seats. Jim Sensenbrenner, a big tissue-paper merchant from Wisconsin, Peter King from New York, Tom Tancredo from Colorado or Dana Rohrabacher from California managed not to lose. Key factors behind their re-election were an effective cadre machine, millions of campaign dollars, and big help from the conservative media.

 

In December, 2005, H.R.4437, also known as the Sensenbrenner-King bill, surreptitiously passed the House. The bill, for the first time in U.S. history, branded undocumented immigrants as criminals, and called for their mass detention and deportation. It also asked for billions of dollars of federal money to erect a 700-mile long fence along the Mexican border, a provision that became reality when in summer, the Senate enacted its own bill into law. Both H. R. 4437 and the newly passed law denied the impacted immigrants to have a judicial review of their cases. Both the House bill and the new law called for a much-expanded detention system for the “illegals.”

 

Democrats, for their part, did not act much differently to resolve the situation. Fact is, only a handful of Democratic Congress members showed their strong support for a real comprehensive immigration reform, for the fear of losing popularity. Fact is that a majority of Democratic leaders endorsed the undemocratic, authoritarian PATRIOT Act, and a less-known, now-defunct, racist Special Registration Act. Both laws brought terrifying consequences to millions of immigrants, breaking apart famlies. Many Bengali and South Asian familes fell victims. Even the now-infamous H.R.4437 was supported by some 40 House Democrats.

 

Nonetheless, one can’t overlook the gains from the November elections. Most far-right, anti-immigrant Republicans have lost, which include Randy Graf and J. D. Howarth in Arizona, or Rick Sanctorum in Pennsylvania. These are notable defeats because they endorsed xenophobia; they espoused forced expulsion of immigrants. They are also linked with vigilante groups such as the Minuteman, an armed organization associated with extremist, militant groups with a very dark past. Some of the groups have called for shooting and lynching of the undocumented immigrant.

 

There are other gains. States like California, New York, New Jersey, Arizona, Texas, or Florida – places where there’s a large population of newcomers – have seen a strong show by Democrats. New Jersey has elected Robert Menendez, the first Hispanic Senator. Menendez defeated Tom Kean, Jr., who campaigned along an anti-immigrant line. A number of pro-immigrant Democratic governors have won in states such as Ohio, Illinois or Colorado, states one would consider key to the upcoming presidential elections in 2008. In Illinois, against all the smearing and mud-slinging, Democratic governor Rod Blagojevich, a first-generation immigrant, won a second term. On top of all, in the backdrop of a post-September Eleventh, nationwide anti-Islam backlash, an American Muslim entered the House from Minnesota, a feat many would deem as historic.

 

Democrat and Republican parties do understand the importance of the highly educated, middle class, “legal” immigrants, many of whom are citizens or permanent residents. Even Arnold Schwarzeneggar, a staunch anti-immigrant candidate of yesterday, did an election-eve flip-flop "Hollywood" dance to win the California governorship. He came out in opposition of the Mexican border fence idea or deployment of the National Guard there. He also supported a minimum wage hike in his state, a policy that would primarily benefit its vast, Latino immigrant workforce. Further, he supported progressive, scientific measures such as the stem cell research, going against Bush’s conservative church doctrine. All this for politics, no doubt, but it worked.

 

Important bills to overhaul our nation’s dysfunctional and anti-immigrant laws are sitting in Congress for a number of years. Senators Kennedy and McCain, House Rep. Jackson-Lee, et al., have authored legislations that the new Democratic leadership must take advantage of, and pass into law. Hard-working, family-oriented, undocumented immigrants have suffered for years. In a "democratic and just" America, they want to come out of the shadows, send their children to school, use our medical facilities, and most importantly, want to live a fear-free, dignified life.

 

Is there a ray of hope for them now? We keep our hopes alive.

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Dr. Partha Bannerjee is the executive director of New Jersey Immigration Policy Network and a fellow of Independent Press Association (IPA). To learn more about him, visit his website at http://www.geocities.com/chokmoki/