The Senators’ Bargain: Sobering Lessons From 2007’s Failed Immigration Reform

By Julianne Hing Mar 25, 2010

This past weekend, hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country marched on the national mall in Washington, D.C. for comprehensive and just immigration reform. Families were there, the DREAMers were there, politicians and policy makers were there, labor, faith and civil rights groups were there. Even a video-ed in President Obama made an appearance. But the rally got zero air time from mainstream networks, scant coverage from the nightly news, and a few inches of newsprint, on A12, in the Monday papers. On Sunday the networks were pounding out the healthcare updates all day long. That was, sure, kind of a really big deal. But the networks’ choice to stay away from coverage of the march seemed to reflect the general skittishness across the rest of the country and indeed, among Congress, in dealing with immigration reform this year. What are immigration activists up against? Folks are exhausted, bipartisanship these days is about as real as unicorns, and if health care reform was supposed to be an easy issue for the country to coalesce around, immigration promises to be so much more dirty and divisive this time around. As activists roll up their sleeves again, there are certainly lessons to be learned from the fights for immigration reform in recent years. The Senators’ Bargain, the last documentary in a twelve-part series that premiered on HBO last night, offers some takeaways from the 2006 and 2007 rounds. The movie provides an insider’s look at the backroom deals between politicians, interest groups and mainstream immigration activists in the wake of the failed McCain-Kennedy bill and the awful slog through the failed Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill of 2007. We see a lot of conference calls, a lot of shaking of hands, a lot of Blackberries and people with tiny tv’s tuned to CSPAN. We see a lot of frazzled looking immigration advocates counting the narrow margins on each potential vote, weighing compromises and ultimately always giving in. Unfortunately, the primary lesson the documentary offers those who hope for sweeping reform this year is that people had better be ready to concede a lot. The film follows several key players: Ted Kennedy, whose stature and clout and sincere commitment to immigration reform is matched by no other member of Congress right now. Esther Olavarria, the current Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security. Then, she served as General Counsel to Ted Kennedy. A rotating cast of conservative immigration restrictionists: Senators John Kyl, Jeff Sessions, Jim DeMint, John Cornyn. And then there’re folks like Frank Sharry, the charismatic and smooth talking operative who represents the pro-immigration movement’s best defense. In 2007 he was the executive director of the National Immigration Forum. In the span of several weeks while the 2007 bill is being debated and chewed to bits, there’s an urgency to accept policy that calls for billions more in enforcement and an end to family reunification, a central part of immigration policy that enables families to be reunited in this country. Advocates are told to shut up and get behind the flawed bills that are rolled out, the hope being that if they can just get their bills to the floor, they can talk their way through the worst parts of these reforms. But it doesn’t happen. The bills continue to move further and further to the right once they hit the floor. Horrific amendments that would give immigrants no confidentiality and demand English-only provisions pass. And yet advocates are told: we’ll fix it in the House. Sharry is the person that White House staffers call to cut deals and gauge community reaction. He’s passionate and smart, and a realist. In a debrief in the halls of Congress, he tells his fellow advocates, "It’s not going to be a bill or no bill. It’s a bill, or enforcement only," a gravely prescient observation. He gives plenty of "don’t let the perfect stand in the way of the good" speeches. But he also urges community members to support the bill, even though he knows it compromises so much of the core of the immigration community’s fundamental demands. Those are the most difficult scenes to watch. When Sen. Bob Menendez calls a meeting with Karen Narasaki, Cecilia Munoz, Clarissa Martinez, Angela Kelley, Frank Sharry, Wade Henderson, and other big-name immigration advocates who want him to vote for the bill, he scolds them for supporting policy that he calls "xenophobic." "I’m disappointed in all of you," he says, "Because in your desire to get something, you’re wiling to let us…all become a punching bag in the process." In 2006, just as today, there was a movement happening outside the insular world of D.C.. Similar historic protests took place in Phoenix, Boston and Chicago, waves of protests spanning several months. Crowds of nearly half a million people turned out in Los Angeles alone. It’s all very illuminating, in light of the recent passage of health care reform, to see the repeated capitulation by progressives in the room. We never do see the conversations between advocates where they discuss what they’re willing to compromise on; we only see acceptance as the bill is moved further and further to the right. I got up from the television last night completely weary, with a new understanding of the mind-numbing process of getting a bill passed. But I left it gravely concerned about the climate we face in 2010, with anti-immigrant sentiment ratcheted up to even more hysterical levels. It was dispiriting that the activists that are supposed to represent the immigration movement ended up looking like such chickens in the face of formidable opposition. This past Sunday, 200,000 people came to D.C. with their concerns and demands: people want legalization for the estimated 12 million undocumented people in this country. People want an end to the raids and mandatory detention and deportations that are stealing parents away from children and tearing families apart. People want a humane system for dealing with people who may come to this country in the future, and they want an answer for the many hundreds of thousands who have waited while the clogged immigration system has put their families’ lives on hold for five, ten, fifteen years. They demanded to be heard, the needs of their families and communities addressed. But inside D.C., in backroom meetings, many decisions, and compromises, are likely already being made.