The Losing End of Compromise: Today’s Immigration Reform, Yesterday’s Political Deals

The Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007 currently being debated in the Senate is being called "the Grand Compromise" between Democrats and Republicans, those pro-immigrant and those anti-immigrant. The smiling faces of notoriously liberal Senator Kennedy (D-MA) shaking hands with renowned conservative Senator Kyl (R-AZ) demonstrate that we are witnessing a historic moment of two sides coming together. However, as the floor debate continues and Congress argues over the structure of the new economy and the fate of millions of migrant and domestic workers, one has to wonder how history will record such a compromise.

With hundreds of thousands of Latino-led immigrants marching in the streets for family reunification and legalization, and similar numbers of anti-immigrant groups lobbying their representatives, the grand compromise is not simply about immigration and labor policy. It deals with the heart of who is considered American.

2007 isn’t the first time that the US government has grappled with the question of including millions working in its fields and factories as full citizens. Since the country’s inception, politicians have debated who should receive open arms or cold shoulders.

At the end of the 18th Century, European settlers were charged with the task of forming a new system of government for the territories recently freed from English rule. As they moved forward they faced the dilemma of governing a land that included European colonists and their indentured servants, the Native Americans who populated the land before their arrival, as well as the enslaved Africans brought to the New World in bondage. While the founding fathers quickly agreed that Native Americans would not be considered part of the American body politic, there was debate over the inclusion of Africans. The European descendent politicians quickly decided that their nation was one of ‘free white men’ but did not easily resolve the presence of Africans in their midst.

What would the inclusion of Africans mean for representation, for taxes? Instead of affirming that all men were created equal, the Constitutional Convention decided that African men and women were actually created as a fraction. Whereas Africans such as Crispus Attucks and many others fought for the independence of the newly forming country, they quickly found the country was not for them. In fact, the compromise at the time decided that enslaved Africans were to count as three-fifths of human beings. As a result, Southern states gained control of congress and prevented any future abolitionist legislation from reaching the floor for the next century.

While the three-fifths compromise temporarily united European descendent colonists in their project of nation building, the presence of Africans and the institution of slavery continued to plague the Union. Repeatedly, the U.S. Congress had the opportunity to affirm the rights of all people but instead sought to maintain the Union through compromise among whites at the expense and exclusion of Africans, Native Americans, and non-Europeans. As the nation continued expanding over Native American land, the question of the expansion of slavery also arose. Rather than curtailing the institution as many at the time called for, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 ensured an equal balance of new enslaving and free states.

As Africans resisted and escaped their enslavement, tensions rose between white Southerners and the Northerners they accused of harboring and assisting those escaping bondage. In order to appease such complaints, the federal government passed the Compromise of 1850 which included the Fugitive Slave Act. Much like modern day calls for local police enforcement of immigration laws, the act made it the duty of marshals to return fleeing Africans to their enslavers. Like the punitive measures of the Sensenbrenner bill of 2005, the Fugitive Slave Act punished anyone providing food or shelter to escaping Africans with imprisonment and fines. Recognizing the need to do more to catch slaves, like the need to catch illegally entering migrants, the act increased the amount of federal agents dedicated to the task. Seemingly, the newest thing about the current compromise is that legislators of 1850 hadn’t thought to propose the erection of a fence between Kentucky and Ohio that could have kept Africans in their rightful place, South of that border.

After the Civil War, Blacks saw a glimmer of opportunity in the federally mandated Reconstruction programs. Southern whites responded with grassroots activism and violence through the founding of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan that quickly demonstrated that full inclusion of Africans would mean continued and violent division among whites. The violent activity on the streets of the South influenced the outcomes in the highest office of government. Though he won the electoral college majority in 1876, the Republican president Hayes (Republicans were the good guys at the time) was only able to gain office through yet another compromise in 1877. Southerners ready for another secession only accepted his presidency under the agreement that federal troops be removed from Confederate states. With the Compromise, the Reconstruction Era was quickly rolled back and local governments ushered in the bloody establishment of Jim Crow segregation that sent millions of Blacks migrating North during the Great Migration.

Today, we inherit the legacy of such intra-white compromises made as the nation progressed; from restrictive immigration policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1880s to the formation of all-white unions at the beginning of the 20th century or the decision of the Democratic National Convention of 1964 to seat segregationist Dixiecrats instead of the Black delegates from the Mississippi Freedom Party. History’s compromises have crafted the ‘one nation, indivisible’ we live in today.

The "Grand Immigration Compromise of 2007" is much like those we’ve seen in the past. While immigrant marches have forced legalization onto the political agenda, politicians are answering more to the counsel of white citizens that threatens domestic instability. While groups such as the Minutemen and the Federation for American Immigration Reform present a polished public image, their grassroots activity demonstrates a different track record. Last month, a Minuteman activist struck and killed a leader among Latino migrant workers with his car during an anti-immigrant protest at a day laborer hiring site in California. A Workers’ Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland, recently suffered from arson, an act county officials designated as a hate crime.

If we look at the content of the current compromise and learn anything from history, we can see the government shying away from the opportunity to affirm full rights for all through inclusive legalization. As politicians craft new policy for the new economy, the majority of the 12 million undocumented workers will most likely be ineligible for the legalization offered. Guest worker programs will cater to English speaking countries and the human reality of divided families and low-wage hardships will be overshadowed by false populist accusations of amnesty. Instead of fixing a broken system and addressing the economic and international trade issues that cause migration, Congress will most likely seek to please a disgruntled white populace with the continued exclusion and incarceration of the workers of color who make the country run.

B. Loewe is a participant in immigrant worker organizing in Chicago, IL.