Four Healthcare Debate Takeaways For The Immigration Reform Fight

By Guest Columnist Aug 24, 2009

By Patrick Young (This post originally appeared on Long Island Wins.) I went to visit a Congresswoman’s office last week in the Hudson Valley. Outside her offices were nine or ten protesters with signs warning that health care reform is the opening wedge for a "socialist" takeover of the United States. With a comprehensive immigration bill likely to be introduced in the next 30-60 days, we should look at the health care donnybrook for lessons about the course immigration reform is likely to take. 1. The argument will not be about the issues. There were many legitimate areas of disagreement about health care reform. The impact on the deficit, whether a public option would kill the private health insurance option, and what the effect on care would be for those already covered were all important topics for discussion. But the issues that grabbed the nation’s attention were "death panels", and whether or not Obama is a modern incarnation of Hitler. The well-informed dismissed these nonsensical rantings, but the general public, while not believing them, did change its attitude towards reform because of them. The sight of thousands of Americans so upset about the proposed changes made many wonder if it was worth dividing the country over health care. The same calculus will be in play over immigration reform. The "debate" will not be a debate at all. It will be an agonized screaming of primal fears tapping into the identity politics of the right. Most Americans will disagree with prognostications of racial suicide following comprehensive immigration reform, but they will wonder whether it is worth alienating so many Americans over an issue as peripheral to most voters lives as the fate of the undocumented. Economic studies showing the good effects of immigration will not reassure people worried about the collapse of political discourse and the dangers to civil society posed by the extreme emotionalism of the anti-immigrant activists. This can be countered, but not by academic studies. 2. The same Democrats who are balking at health care reform will also be chased into a corner by the anti-immigrants. Blue dogs weren’t born that color. They are blue because they run in Republican-heavy districts. They were the most likely to get mobbed at town hall metings this summer and they will be similarly vulnerable when immigration reform moves onto the agenda. National and state-wide groups need to move their organizing resources away from the immigrant-dense urban districts, and into these blue dog precincts. Reform will be won or lost in rust-belt cities and in the suburbs. 3. Guns, guns, guns. As the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out earlier this month, the Minutemen have become the paramilitary of choice for the far-right. As we saw during the health care debate, the display of deadly weapons has become a symbolic means of political communication. And guns in the hands of Minutemen are even more accepted among conservatives than guns carried by other militias. Guns will be used by the Minutemen to demonstrate the dangers of illegal immigration, as well as to intimidate the supporters of immigration reform. Weapons form a traditional mode of demonstrating the dominance of conservative elements over the non-white population in the United States, and the symbolic impact will be strong. We need to react immediately to the dangerous introduction of the threat of deadly force as a subversion of our democratic process. Ties should immediately be drawn between political gunplay and the Minuteman murders as well as the other killings of immigrants and police by racist and anti-government activists. We should also understand that if we can turn the American people against the gun-toters now, we can innoculate them against the Minutemen. 4. Have courage. This may be the last best chance we have for immigration reform. Expect the lies, name calling, and threats. Persevere.