In the last few months, the Senate Judiciary Committee has been the scene of some high drama and low comedy as hearings on the confirmation of appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court were televised.
Yet when another important issue comes before the same group this session, it's unlikely that the scrutiny of their long-winded perorations will be as great. That may be of some comfort to their political handlers, but it's bad news for the public as the fate of a crucial piece of legislation is probably going to be decided without creating as much of a stir.
The issue in question is that of immigration reform - a congressional black hole that has eluded the grasp of our solons for more than a generation. There is a general consensus in this country that our immigration policy, which is highly restrictive in theory but often flouted in practice, is broken.
Millions are in this country illegally. More come every year. The question is: What do we do about those who are here, and how do we fix the current system?
One answer came from the House of Representatives in December when it passed the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act by a vote of 239-182. Rather than supporting President Bush's proposals to make provisions for guest workers that would give millions who are already here a chance to gain legal status - as well as add to the tax rolls - the bill made their presence an "aggravated felony."
The bill also made it easier for the government to place immigrants, including many asylum-seekers, in detention, and deprive them of access to the courts to gain release. It would also, among many other draconian measures, attempt to overturn a Supreme Court decision that placed limits on the indefinite detention of immigrants.
In other words, this "reform" measure does nothing but attempt to enforce with even greater vigor and cruelty a set of laws already unworkable and unenforceable.
Despite the opposition of the president (whose own sensible proposals to provide documentation to the more than 10 million undocumented workers in this country have been ignored by Congress), Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and their allies fended off every amendment to limit the bill's damage - and ultimately saw it passed.
It now comes before the Senate, where it faces competition from a bill co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) that is far closer to the president's ideas.
So, how will Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chair of the Judiciary Committee, and the rest of the Senate deal with this issue. As various bills are brought before the committee and "marked up," the Senate will be faced with the question of whether they have the guts to face down the House and the grass-roots movement that Tancredo tapped into.
Why did the vast majority of Republican House members - and more than 30 Democrats - vote for such a bill? The answer is simple: Tancredo has latched onto the latest wave of xenophobia to sweep the nation. It's fueled in part by the sense of insecurity that all Americans feel in the post-Sept. 11 world as Islamic terrorists plot our destruction. But the passion that is driving the Tancredo bill has little to do with real security concerns.
The people Tancredo and the so-called "Minuteman Project" (vigilantes who are camped out at the border to monitor illegals) oppose are not Islamists who want to murder and destroy the West. They are largely Mexicans and migrants from other impoverished nations who want to make a living here, and work at menial jobs Americans don't want to do.
Most of the illegals pay taxes - and would pay still more if they were legalized. They come to work, not go on welfare. Ironically, many would leave and go home (as a percentage of immigrants in every generation always have), but stay because they fear their status and the immigration bureaucracy would make it impossible to return.
But what really drives the "Minutemen" is not terrorism or economic issues. It is, in fact, the same sense that America is losing its identity to a foreign horde - in this case, a Hispanic horde.
It must be admitted that many of the multicultural fallacies of the modern welfare state have made some of those arguments seem more reasonable. But as strong as the presence of Hispanic culture may be in some parts of the country, the notion that it is "conquering" us is a joke. The vast majority of immigrants learn English and want to become Americans.
Like the fantasies proposed in the past by the Marxist left, no law - not even the wall that Tancredo and other nativist rabble-rousers literally want to build on our borders - can annul the economic laws of supply and demand. If there are jobs and people who want to work, they will come. Making a law that simply cannot be enforced all the more harsher won't solve the problem, but it will gratify those who wish to scapegoat scared busboys, cleaning ladies and fruit-pickers.
What we ought to do - and what the president wants to do - is make it possible for them to be here legally, and let us reap the benefits that their labors undoubtedly bring to our economy.
Xenophobia and Democracy
This fight is not a new one. Like the largely anti-Semitic immigration proposals of the early 20th century, the "Yellow Peril" movement that sought to create legal discrimination against Asian immigrants a century ago and the pre-Civil War Know-Nothings who waged political war against the influx of Catholics, this episode shows that nativism still stalks the land.
The Tancredo crowd is wrong because xenophobia does not become a democracy whose citizens are all, one way or another, as Eleanor Roosevelt once put it, "fellow immigrants."
Immigration has always been a net plus for this nation - and remains so.
Safeguarding immigration and asylum rights ought to be a priority for liberals, especially Jewish liberals who claim to be fierce defenders of our liberties. But they have put it on the back-burner in favor of other issues that have a more partisan slant. Their unwillingness or inability to mobilize on an issue that cuts across partisan lines (and on which they would find themselves on the same side as their nemesis George W. Bush) is a tragedy.
With the court nominations soon to be a done deal, it's time for these same liberal groups, as well as moderates and libertarians across the entire political spectrum, to put a laser-like focus on the deliberations of Sen. Specter and his colleagues.
It's simply imperative that we stop Tancredo's extremist followers - and the politicians who fear them - from twisting the cause of immigration reform into a parody of American values.