Immigration Lawyer of the Year: Joe Wilson

By Michelle Chen Sep 16, 2009

Tuesday was Joe “You Lie” Wilson’s day of reckoning. Following his temper tantrum during Obama’s address on healthcare reform, the House, by a 240-179 vote, issued this stinging rebuke:

Whereas on September 9, 2009, during the joint session of Congress convened pursuant to House Concurrent Resolution 179, the President of the United States, speaking at the invitation of the House and Senate, had his remarks interrupted by the Representative from South Carolina, Mr. Wilson; and Whereas the conduct of the Representative from South Carolina was a breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of the House: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the House of Representatives disapproves of the behavior of the Representative from South Carolina, Mr. Wilson, during the joint session of Congress held on September 9, 2009.

Ouch! Looks like Wilson will be nursing his pride for a while before he dares spew another frothing xenophobic outburst in that hallowed chamber. In the meantime, he can work on clearing up the record on his latest breach of decorum. Talking Points Memo reports that at a Thursday press conference, Wilson bumbled:

I’m for immigration, legal immigration, I’ve been an immigration attorney.

That little tidbit was part of a longer passive-aggressive, elliptical apology-slash-tirade in which he argued while he doesn’t object to immigration, “[for] people who have come to our country and violated laws, we should not be providing full health care services.” TPM’s Zachary Roth did an exhaustive factcheck on Wilson’s claim of immigration law credentials. It turns out that the statement is likely even less true than his outburst last week about Obama lavishing medical care on undocumented immigrants. A number of former colleagues were puzzled by this fresh addition to Wilson’s resume:

One lawyer from Wilson’s home county of Lexington — who said he has known Wilson personally since 1985 and described himself as very familiar with Wilson’s law practice — declared flatly to TPMmuckraker: "Joe has never been anything but a real-estate attorney." The lawyer allowed that it was theoretically possible that Wilson could have taken a few immigration cases on the side, or have worked in the field before 1985, but he described that possibility as remote. "You could call 150 lawyers down here and ask if Wilson did immigration law, they’d say: ‘Hell no.’"… Of course, it’s certainly possible that Wilson took a few immigration cases early in his career, and the people we spoke to weren’t aware of them. But even if that’s the case, immigration law is a sophisticated, specialized field. Calling oneself an immigration attorney implies a body of technical knowledge and experience that Wilson, it appears, doesn’t possess. So it would be misleading in the extreme for Wilson to claim to have "been an immigration attorney," as he did. Almost, dare we say it, a lie.

If, at some point in time, Joe Wilson was indeed responsible for the fate of an immigrant seeking to navigate the legal process, that fact alone would make a persuasive case for an immediate, full-scale overhaul of the country’s immigration system. So maybe it’s good thing that Joe Wilson, Esq. stuck with real estate. But should his apparent fib incur another official censure? It would probably be far more productive for politicians and activists to move on from Wilson’s mendacity and try to inject some intelligence into what’s left of the healthcare debate. But the racially charged right-wing venom that Wilson’s words embodied that night is a critical lesson on how the truth plays out in Congress. Inside the Beltway, political deception is just business as usual; it’s only when you try to have an honest debate that you get hit with real consequences. Image: Rex Babin, Sacramento Bee