TOPICS > Politics

Immigrants Fight Back

October 23, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLES KRAUSE: They came by the tens of thousands, Hispanic Americans protesting in Washington what they perceive to be growing anti immigrant sentiment across the country. As evidence, they point to Proposition 187–the ballot initiative passed two years ago in California that would prohibit health and education benefits to illegal immigrants–and then, this year’s immigration and welfare reform bills which prohibit future federal benefits even for legal immigrants until after they’ve become citizens. President Clinton signed the two bills into law. But it’s House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republicans who get most of the blame.

Marchers Chanting: Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! Newt Gingrich has to go.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Mexican-Americans call the new anti-immigrant climate La Amenza–the threat. What they’re angry about was most clearly reflected by Pat Buchanan’s incendiary rhetoric during California’s Republican primary. Indeed, for Hispanics, his words and deeds have now become an emotional rallying cry.

REP. LUIZ GUTIERREZ, (D) Illinois: Yes, Pat Buchanan picked up a rifle in his hands, and he looked across the border with that rifle in his hands, and he said, “This is what I have for you Jose!” Y Hoy, and today we say to Pat Buchanan this is what we have for you. Pat Buchanan!

CHARLES KRAUSE: What may have seemed like good politics at the time blaming the country’s economic and budgetary problems on hordes of illegal immigrants from Mexico, and elsewhere has created a backlash.

ENRIQUE SOLVANZANO, Marcher: We’re not saying that we want special treatment, what we want is our rights. We want is justice as immigrants, as human beings.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Instead of reducing the flow of legal and illegal migrants into the United States, Latino political activist Juan Jose Gutierrez says the new anti immigrant climate has politicized many Hispanics who’ve never been active in politics before.

JUAN JOSE GUTIERREZ, March Coordinator: The Latinos finally are emerging as a coherent political force, more so every day, and so that in the future we can already envision the day when politicians are going to have to understand that their political calculus can no longer assume that there will be no political consequences if they are going to continue to practice the simplistic politics of scapegoating those least able to protect themselves, namely the immigrants.

CHARLES KRAUSE: What Hispanics some of them in the U.S. for decades have begun to realize is that suddenly their rights are not fully protected until they become citizens. So, fearful that the anti immigrant fever will spread, record numbers of legal immigrants are being naturalized in mass swearing in ceremonies across the country. And it’s not just Latinos who are rushing to become citizens.

DORIS MEISSNER, Commissioner, INS: You have come from 113 countries around the globe.

CHARLES KRAUSE: A record 1.2 million immigrants have taken out citizenship this year alone, an increase of more than 100 percent.

DORIS MEISSNER: Congratulations! You’re a citizen of the United States of America! (applause and cheers)

CHARLES KRAUSE: Immigration and Naturalization Commissioner Doris Meissner says some of the reasons for the increase are technical: from changes in the green card process to an amnesty law passed by Congress a decade ago.

DORIS MEISSNER: A very large number of people- about three million people- who became legalized under a 1986 immigration law in the last two years– have become eligible to file for citizenship.

MR. KRAUSE: But Meissner and activists on both sides of the issue stress the impact of Proposition 187, which was the first sign of rising anti immigrant feeling, followed by the recent changes in the federal immigration and welfare laws. Muriel Heiberger, director of an immigrant advocacy coalition in Massachusetts supports the rush to naturalization but says denying benefits to migrants is mean spirited and wrong.

MURIEL HEIBERGER, Immigrant Advocate: People are very frightened, first of all just by the climate; the welfare reform bill is one good example. This is a new bill that for the first time in this nation’s history would deny legal permanent residents and these are people who have lived here for many, many years, have worked, have paid taxes, would deny them from a whole, from receiving a whole range of federal benefit programs.

CHARLES KRAUSE: On the other side of the issue is Dan Stein, who heads a public interest group in Washington. His group, called FAIR, favors an end to immigration, except for certain exceptional cases. Stein says he’s well aware that he and others who would restrict immigration and end benefits are often accused of being racist. But Stein insists it’s an economic issue not a racial one.

DAN STEIN, Federation for American Immigration Reform: Americans are a rational people who are not afraid of people who are different, who look different, who sound different, but they are afraid of what appears to be the failure of the national government to control our sovereignty in our country’s future. People who are in high-impact areas recognize that their tax dollars are going to pay for an ever increasing supply of people, many of them poor and uneducated, from around the world who have everything to gain and nothing to lose by crashing our borders.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Faced with a huge and growing backlog, the Immigration & Naturalization Service created a new program last year to speed up the application process.

DORIS MEISSNER: If we had not acted, by now we would be in the realm of two to four years time to process a citizenship application. That is clearly unacceptable.

CHARLES KRAUSE: The new INS program called Citizenship USA has succeeded in speeding up the application process, but Citizenship USA has also drawn the attention of Republicans in Congress, their charge, that the White House has used the INS in strategically coordinated voter registration drives to load up the voter rolls in key states with large numbers of immigrants, states like Illinois, Florida, and California.

SPOKESMAN: Who needs to register to vote?

CHARLES KRAUSE: Until filing deadlines this month–voter registration groups like this one in front of Faneuil Hall in Boston, waited for potential voters outside naturalization ceremonies. And here in Boston at least, President Clinton was the clear favorite of the New Citizens.

SPOKESMAN: I’m voting for a Democrat because I am from the minority.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Not surprisingly, Republicans, led by Congressman Mark Souder, are crying foul.

REP. MARK SOUDER, (R) Indiana: The question is, is why did they try to get rid of a four-year backlog just in time for voter registration time, plus try to double the normal size of the people coming into the system?

CHARLES KRAUSE: Congressman Souder’s House Government Reform Oversight Committee is currently investigating the Citizenship USA program. So far, the Congressman says the committee has found several serious breaches, including widespread cheating on the part of one of the companies hired to administer the citizenship tests. The INS has also acknowledged that several thousand applications were processed before required FBI background checks were completed, resulting in several dozen naturalizations of immigrants with prior criminal records.

REP. MARK SOUDER: But when we put more money in, we didn’t say oh, skip whether they speak English. Oh, skip whether they can pass a test. Oh, skip the FBI background check. What we meant I put more money in, do it right and maybe the first year you get it to a three year backlog, two year backlog, one year backlog. You shouldn’t cheapen the process just so you can get a few votes this November.

CHARLES KRAUSE: According to Souder, Vice President Gore cleverly used the reinventing government initiative as a cover to manipulate the Naturalization Service. He points to memos and e-mail from Gore’s office as evidence. One e-mail message, for example, warns that “if we are too aggressive at removing road blacks to success, we might be publicly criticized for running a pro-Democratic voter mill.” According to INS critic Stein, that’s exactly what happened; on orders from the White House, hundreds of thousands of new citizens were sworn in, then quickly registered to vote in time for the upcoming election.

MR. STEIN: We believe the blizzard of memos suggest that it’s being done in a way to ingratiate these new citizens to the Clinton administration, we’re the ones who are responsible, the President’s pronouncements about how the Republican initiatives were anti-immigrant, the compose of the use of Executive power, all these spell basically Boss Tweed-Tammany Hall abuse of the process for partisan political gain. Whether they broke the law or not is something one can’t say now, but clearly, it smells like a rat.

CHARLES KRAUSE: But INS Commissioner Meissner says the Republicans’ case is misleading, yes, Yes, the vice president’s office wanted to streamline the immigration process, but she says the memos about how the process could be used for political gain never reached her office.

DORIS MEISSNER: I’ve only become aware of some of those memos myself in the last week or so, that they have been released. At the time when all of that occurred, the contact that was going on had to do with reinventing procedures. There were one or two suggestions they made that we took, but fundamentally nothing that they did in any way changed the fundamentals of what we were doing.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Meissner also says the company found to be falsifying tests is in the process of being suspended and most of the other problems have been corrected.

DORIS MEISSNER: What we’ve done in Citizenship USA is responded to people who want to become citizens–that may upset some people. That may very well upset some people. But these are all people that are eligible to be citizens, they’ve been here at least five years, they immigrated legally, they’re playing by the rules. We should applaud them; they are what America is about.

CHARLES KRAUSE: There are no polls of recently naturalized citizens, so there’s no way to predict how they’ll vote on November 5th, but there are polls of Mexican-American voters in California that show they’ll vote overwhelmingly Democratic this year. Gutierrez says the Republicans have squandered an historic opportunity.

MR. GUTIERREZ: Everybody knows that Latinos are much inclined to being conservative. We have a strong work ethic, strong individualism, believe in family and church and so on, so many of us were ready to join the ranks of the Republican party if the Republican Party had opened its doors and embraced us. But they not simply rejected us, but they insulted and humiliated us for the sake of winning votes.

CHARLES KRAUSE: But Stein says the majority of new Citizens won’t necessarily vote for President Clinton and the Democrats.

MR. STEIN: Let’s clear away the eye wash here about the idea that immigrants all vote Democratic, okay. Many Asians, Cubans, many people from East Bloc countries, very politically much more interested in the Republicans’ message on Communism, on private property, on the role of entrepreneurialship, it is simply facile, ivory tower blowing smoke to suggest that just because people want to restore the discipline and meaning of citizenship that immigrants themselves are going to react hostilely, that is not the case.

CHARLES KRAUSE: More than 2 million foreign-born Americans have become citizens in the last four years and probably double that number will become citizens before the next presidential election. So increasingly, politicians from both parties will be forced to consider these citizen voters and their views on immigration and other issues in the years to come.