If the anti-immigrant reactions to the outbreak of H1N1 influenza — “swine flu” — are any indication, advocates for immigration reform are going to have an uphill battle in Congress this year.
On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship held its first hearing on Comprehensive Immigration Reform. The hearing was full of powerful arguments for why comprehensive immigration reform would boost the U.S. economy, enhance public safety and reinforce American values of hard work, family unity and entrepreneurship. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan testified to how legalizing undocumented immigrants would boost economic conditions for everyone, while Thomas Manger, Montgomery County, Md., Police Chief and Chairman of the legislative committee for the Major Cities Chiefs’ Association, testified that legalization would improve relationships between local communities and police officers and help law enforcement do its job.
But one witness, Joel Hunter, a church pastor who spoke eloquently of the humanitarian need for immigration reform, alluded to the dark side of the debate that could ultimately torpedo the reform effort: “A broken [immigration] system tempts many to predatory practices,” he said, including “the talk show hosts that increase their fame and fortune by picturing those without the proper papers only as conniving and dangerous parasites…”
The swine flu crisis this week played perfectly into the hands of those Hunter described.
When it comes to immigration, the facts often don’t seem to matter. Whether it’s a struggling economy or the threat of a pandemic, the crisis of the day becomes fodder for restrictionist activists to claim that immigration reform – particularly if it involves legalization, or what they derisively call “amnesty” – will only exacerbate the United States’ problems.
As Media Matters documented, nationally syndicated radio host Michael Savage led the pack last Friday, saying: “Make no mistake about it: Illegal aliens are the carriers of the new strain of human-swine avian flu from Mexico.”
Never mind that the first reported cases in the United States came from schoolchildren at a New York City Catholic School who’d traveled to Mexico for spring break. “If we lived in saner times, the borders would be closed immediately,” insisted Savage, who went on to ask, “could this be a terrorist attack through Mexico? Could our dear friends in the radical Islamic countries have concocted this virus and planted it in Mexico knowing that you, [Homeland Security Secretary] Janet Napolitano, would do nothing to stop the flow of human traffic from Mexico?”
Immigration restrictionists unabashedly argue that the crisis of the day — whatever it may be — is the fault of illegal immigrants.
As the fear of swine flue spread on Monday, Fox News anchor Glenn Beck asked on his radio show: “Gee, it would be nice if we had border security now, wouldn’t it?” He went on: “But if you are a family and you’re down in Mexico and you’re dying and those in America are not, why wouldn’t you flood this border? Why wouldn’t you come across this border? It’s exactly what I warned of — different scenario, different reason of — I was talking about economic collapse. People start to come and rush this border, then what happens?”
William Gheen, head of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, on Monday blamed the Obama administration for risking American lives by its “failure to secure our borders.” In a press release issued Tuesday, he called on Congress to “demand that the southern border be closed to all non-essential traffic and that military troops are deployed to stop the nightly flow of thousands of illegal immigrants into America.”
Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) soon chimed in, insisting that the U.S. government close the U.S.-Mexico border until the threat is resolved: “The epicenter of this outbreak is still in Mexico and while we now have several confirmed cases in the United States, we must consider all options to help reduce the number of new cases entering our nation,” said Massa. “I’m glad that the White House has issued a travel advisory and is conducting passive screening at the border, but I think we should consider stronger measures at the border. I am in favor of using all tools available to reduce the spread of Swine Flu.”
Then on Wednesday, The Washington Times, under the banner “Border Still Open,” opened their story on the swine flu outbreak saying, “U.S. officials say traffic across the southern border will not be interrupted by the swine flu outbreak, despite rising numbers of Mexican-origin infections in the U.S. and a warning that the number of infections could reach international pandemic levels.”
And Greta Van Sustren’s show on Fox News yesterday ran with the headline: “Seal the Border?”
Even The Los Angeles Times ran the headline: Swine flu: Time to close the U.S.-Mexico border?
In fact, experts on infectious diseases say that closing down the legal U.S.-Mexico border — even if it were possible — would only exacerbate the problem. “There is no connection between the severity of a pandemic and border crossings,” Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and a longtime adviser to the U.S. government on public health told the Public Radio International show “The World” on Tuesday.
Closing the border could actually inhibit the United States’ ability to obtain what it needs to treat patients and stop the swine flu’s spread. “Few people realize how many of the medical products we use in this country are made outside of the country,” Osterholm said. These products include the circuits for mechanical ventilators that help people breathe in a severe case of the flu. “One of largest producers of circuits in the world is in Mexico,” said Osterholm. “So if we suddenly shut down the border we’d limit how many ventilators we could provide.” Despite those ranting to the contrary, “Border closings in and of themselves do not accomplish walling yourself off from that virus.” As President Obama said at his press conference on Wednesday, closing the border now would be “akin to closing the barn door after the horses are out, because we already have cases here in the United States.”
Still, it’s difficult to convince border restrictionists and their high-pitched advocates that anything but sealing the U.S.-Mexico border is the solution, whether the problem is a flu pandemic, drug-related violence or high unemployment.
At the Senate hearing on Thursday, although different witnesses emphasized different aspects of immigration reform, seven of eight witnesses, representing a broad range of interests, from labor to law enforcement to civil rights and business, supported some form of comprehensive reform that would provide a path to legalization for many of the nation’s current undocumented immigrants. To be sure, there are policy differences, particularly regarding how many temporary “guest” workers should be allowed, for example — businesses want more, unions want fewer — but there appears to be, at least among most serious advocates, legislators and policymakers, consensus about the need for comprehensive reform.
The biggest hurdle may be getting such sober, rational policy arguments heard above the alarmist.
Daphne Eviatar is a law reporter for the Washington Independent.
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