As the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill, S744, continues its tortured transformation from an ostensibly well-intentioned reform concept to a punitive, national security bill, Latino leaders are increasingly questioning the worthiness of the measure.
The internal debate is being polarized by those who say the bill is the "last chance" to legalize the undocumented, even though S744, as written, contains fatal flaws that will:
-- Exclude most undocumented from legalization;
-- Continue mass deportations;
-- Create de facto immigrant worker indentured servitude;
-- Fund billions in defense-industry pork for more drones, walls and guards on the U.S.-Mexico border;
-- Enable massive racial profiling and discrimination by codifying E-verify, the Internet-based system through which businesses can determine an individual's eligibility to work in the United States.
But this is not the first time the immigrant and Latino movements' centerpiece reform bill has been overrun by xenophobic forces. History is repeating itself as S744 is being hijacked, just as was the 1982 legalization bill advocated by then-U.S. Rep. Edward Roybal, D-Calif. Legendary in Latino circles and affectionately referred to as "the Old Man," Ed Roybal was the father of Latino empowerment in California as well as a founder of the nascent immigrant rights movement. He died in 2005.
After years of trying to legalize undocumented immigrants, in 1982 Roybal championed the Simpson-Mazzoli legalization bill. But when it was amended to include measures that violated labor and human rights, Roybal introduced dozens of amendments of his own, effectively killing the bill he had earlier advocated.
California Latino leaders including Roybal would try and fail again in 1984, this time walking out at the Democratic National Convention, shaming presidential nominee Walter Mondale after Democratic congressional leadership allowed anti-immigrant forces to gut the Latino-supported reform bill. The walkout killed the hijacked bill.
Persistence paid off as Roybal helped lead a coalition that in partnership with Republican President Reagan prodded Congress in 1986 to enact the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). In effect, it legalized 2.9 million people, an estimated 70 percent of the undocumented at that time.
Contrary to the balderdash heard today in D.C., IRCA and its amnesty provisions are sanctified among Latinos as one of the best programs ever undertaken by the federal government. It had immensely positive socio-economic benefits for immigrant-heavy states such as California and Texas in ensuing years.
How different Roybal's 1982 and 1984 conclusions were to those of Democrats now! Today's Democratic legislators appear set to support "comprehensive immigration reform" no matter how punitive and/or ineffective its provisions are. Democrats want to claim victory with Latino voters, who are spun daily by corporate media that hype the bill in lockstep with the liberal establishment.
There's too much pressure from the donors and special interests to jump ship even if it's the right thing to do, legislators and advocates complain. Indeed, President Barack Obama held a White House meeting with advocates in May, instructing them not to try to improve S744.
Importantly, liberal foundations and interest groups supporting comprehensive immigration reform have donated tens of millions in recent years to mostly D.C.-based immigrant rights and Latino groups, in essence co-opting them.
But enacting federal legislation is not for the faint-hearted. Those who purport to represent our country's immigrants in the halls of Congress would do well to remember Roybal. The "Old Man" would've scuttled this deal. He wisely knew that no bill is better than a bad bill.
The new Latino/Latina "experts" who populate the cable networks should believe their own words. Fifty million Latinos today are more powerful than ever and need not accept bad legislation like migajeros (beggars). This is not Latinos' last chance, just as it wasn't in 1982 or 1984.
Thanks to the ever-growing Latino vote, public opinion has pivoted from excluding immigrants to including immigrants. Polls clearly favor generous legalization. Now the Latino challenge is to get Congress to reflect that reality, with inclusive, non-punitive legislation, whether in 2013, 2015 or 2017.
S744 falls far short of that goal. It should be dramatically improved or rejected. "Old Man" Roybal would have demanded nothing less.
Antonio González is president of the William C.Velásquez Institute in San Antonio, Texas.