Editor's note: Eight months ago, in part as a response to Arizona's enactment of a law requiring its police to ask anyone they think might be here illegally (read: Mexicans) to produce proof of legal status, Village Voice Media embarked on an extensive national immigration project. It tasked VVM papers across the country with telling the stories of the Hispanics amongst us, to put a human face on their moral, legal, personal, and political perils as they confront the rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment seeping into the American political scene.
Through 26 features, columns, and news shorts, both in print and online, one common theme resonates: Abuses are rife because federal authorities lack a coherent immigration policy.
This story, "Return to Sender," examines the opposing forces at play — liberal, conservative, extremist — that can influence comprehensive immigration reform, something our country desperately needs. To do it right will require good governance from a nation that at times seems ungovernable. To do it wrong or not at all could lead to our undoing as a nation of immigrants.
At every point on the political compass, Americans agree that something needs to be done about the nation's policy on undocumented immigration. The problem is what to do with the immigrants themselves — an issue people from left to right consider urgent. The longer Congress fiddles, meanwhile, the more the state legislatures burn.
In the first half of 2010 alone, legislators in 44 states introduced 319 bills addressing immigration issues, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In the second half of the year, as many as a dozen states took up bills directly fashioned on Arizona's tough Senate Bill 1070, using local police powers to push out undocumented immigrants in a process sometimes called "self-deportation."
The discourse at the state level can be wild and woolly. Debbie Riddle, for example, is the Texas legislator who went on Anderson Cooper 360 in August warning of a plot by immigrant mothers to give birth to "terror babies" — children born here with the specific aim of training them to be secret agents.
Riddle told Cooper that "former FBI folks" whom she declined to name had warned her of a terrorist conspiracy involving foreign babies. She said the plot involves "folks coming over here having their babies when they are not here legally, or they might have overstayed their visa, whether they are coming from south of the border or whether they are coming from Middle-Eastern countries."
Pressed by Cooper, Riddle seemed to conflate the baby threat with dirty bombs from outside the United States: "It is altogether possible to make a dirty bomb," she said, "stick it in a suitcase, walk it across our southern border, and take it to downtown Houston or any other city and blow it up and kill a million or more folks."
At that point, even the usually aggressive Cooper seemed to lose his appetite for further detail.
But Riddle was only hitting her stride on the Anderson Cooper show. After the November 2 election, she camped out on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives in Austin for an entire weekend so that she would be first in line when the House opened for business Monday morning. The minute the chief clerk opened his door, Riddle handed him a bill that was a direct copycat of Arizona's SB 1070, based on "enforcement first," with no eye toward integration or citizenship.
She also introduced a bill denying the right to vote to American citizens who fail to produce required photo identification cards. (The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals already has ruled that Arizona cannot require proof of citizenship for voter registration, but it let stand a part of the state law that requires voters to produce photo identification at the polls.)
Later, Riddle bragged on her Web site that she had "created a media frenzy." Describing her weekend outing, she said, "A visitor that walked by told me that I reminded them of the kids that camp out for Duke basketball tickets in Durham, North Carolina."
Compared to Riddle's exuberance, the case for comprehensive reform is numbingly complex and frustratingly diffuse. But that has a lot to do with the incredible breadth of the coalition behind an integrative approach as opposed to those who propose massive deportation.
Anderson Cooper can do all the deadpan he wants. And yet it's the Debbie Riddles who are in the driver's seat on immigration — a stunning reality, given the breadth and depth of the forces arrayed against them in favor of comprehensive reform and full legal status for the undocumented millions amongst us.
Consider the National Immigration Forum, whose mission is to "embrace and uphold America's tradition as a nation of immigrants." Its board members represent the Catholic Church, the Baptist Church, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, major employers, and big labor, along with policy groups of both liberal and conservative stripe.
The urgent need for national immigration reform is uniting what otherwise might be strange bedfellows. In April when Arizona passed SB 1070, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce went to court against it, arm in arm with one of the country's most powerful unions, the Service Employees International Union.
And it's not just interest groups and factions who favor a resolution that does not involve mass deportation. Opinion polls have found strong support — in the 80 percent range — for controlling the borders and integrating the immigrants already here into lawful society. Mass expulsion, whether by deportation or harassment, is in the approval ratings basement, at more like 25 percent.
In spite of all that, the advocates of integration are foxholing for a bitter fight in which they admit their best hope is to stave off a surge for mass expulsion when the new Congress sits next year, given its anticipated tenor after the full effect of the mid-term elections takes hold in January.
Before the midterms changed everything, the aims of moderates came down to four things, all expressed in bills introduced but not passed in the last session of Congress by Senators Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina; Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey; and Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York.