Immigration's Roman Circus

It's cheaper than theater and the blood is real

By Roberto Lovato
Published on LatinoLA: March 4, 2007

Immigration's Roman Circus

As Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers pound their gavels to commence discussions of the high-stakes policy of immigration reform, they should call members to order with a deep throated ‘«£Let the games begin.‘«ō That will demonstrate that the allegedly less-patrician Democrats are more honest about an immigration policy debate that will be largely political theater and Roman circus.

At the center of the debate stands a strange, but powerful, immigration gladiator troupe‘«Ųsome businesses, some unions, some immigrant rights activists‘«Ųaligned around Judiciary Committee members Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz. Their proposal is said to offer legalization for 12 million undocumented residents and a guest worker program combined with increased border patrols, continued funding for a wall along the Mexican border and other ‘«£border enforcement‘«ō red meat for the lions of the radical right. Joining McCain and Kennedy is President George W. Bush, who needs something like a guest worker program, more border patrol funding and other components of what he calls ‘«£comprehensive immigration reform‘«ō to leave more on the inscription beneath his statue than ‘«£failed wartime emperor.‘«ō

Waiting in the subterranean tunnels of the debate are a host of different anti-immigrant forces ready to pounce: Minutemen, some labor unions and presidential candidates like Republican Mitt Romney and Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., for whom legalization spells ‘«£amnesty‘«ō and who want nothing more than thicker, taller walls to ‘«£protect‘«ō the flagging and increasingly less-white empire. Also in the wings are immigrant rights activists who want neither more walls nor guest worker programs; companies (and a couple of important unions like the Service Employees International Union) that want a guest worker program; and presidential hopefuls who want this debate over as soon as possible.

These and other forces extend and expand the defending and destroying of each others positions that defined last year‘«÷s stalemated immigration debate. Even with the major change from last year‘«÷s debate‘«Ųa Democratic-controlled Congress‘«Ųthe end result may still be no reform. Meanwhile, the desolation of the undocumented immigrants who live and work in the dankest, dirtiest, most ruthless and dangerous sectors of the economy deepens. While no bill may be better than policies wrapped in the humanity-proof armor of the enforcement zealots, some immigrants may soon rightly ask movimiento leaders, ‘«£Quo vadis?‘«ō (Where are you going?)

Sadly, the theatrics of the immigration debate take place within parameters as illusory as those of a digital Coliseum created for a movie or TV show. Right-wing Republicans‘«Ųand some ‘«£pragmatic‘«ō Democrats and even ‘«£immigrant rights advocates‘«ō‘«Ųsay a flood of ‘«£criminal aliens‘«ō necessitates a multibillion-dollar ‘«£enforcement‘«ō program administered by the Department of Homeland Security and companies like Halliburton, Boeing and others feasting on the immigration-industrial complex. Left completely outside of the immigration arena are inconvenient facts, such as the results of a recent study by the Immigration Policy Center that showed that 18- to 39-year-old immigrant men of all ethnic groups are five times less likely to be incarcerated than U.S. citizens. Neither is there any discussion of how the cost of the proposed 700-mile wall could be much greater than what Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Calif., and Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., bargained for when they voted for the wall last year‘«Ųperhaps as much as 25 times greater, for a total of more than $49 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Even further beyond the very narrow borders of the current policy debate is the possibility that U.S. war policy in places like Colombia or its failed (and bipartisan) trade policies in Mexico and throughout the hemisphere will feed the endless cycle of social displacement and economic deprivation that drives people from the periphery to the core of the empire. Truth continues to be the first victim of the theatrics and gamesmanship of the ongoing immigration wars between the ships of the ‘«£left‘«ō and ‘«£right,‘«ō ships that float on a fake sea for all to see.

The barbarians of the story, immigrants, are voiceless and chained to the deepest, quietest part of the immigration policy arena. These are the players who must again enter dramatically with a powerful roar of millions, as they did in 2006, if they are to alter the rules of the game played out in Washington, local and state legislatures and our television sets. Only then will a more realistic debate become possible, one that includes legalization and drops guest worker plans, funding for walls and the tragic, family-destroying political theater of raids. Perhaps at that point we can begin to consider how immigrants, moved to leave home because the epic failure of our foreign policies, comprehend what Edward Gibbon, historian of the decadence of the Roman Empire, called ‘«£the fairest part of the earth.‘«ō

If immigrants themselves don‘«÷t display something like the power of last year‘«÷s truly spectacular marches, then we might as well skip the policy debate on C-SPAN in favor of a more dramatic and realistic rendering of the prevailing attitude on Capitol Hill towards immigration policy. That would be an episode of the HBO miniseries, ‘«£Rome,‘«ō in which Brutus, friend and then foe of Caesar, declares, ‘«£Plebs love to see their betters fight. It's cheaper than theater and the blood is real.‘«ō

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