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Will dairy’s dream of immigration reform happen?

Ben Yale Published on 03 February 2011


As the 111th Congress came to an end, the Senate held a vote on the DREAM Act, an immigration reform proposal focused on children of illegal immigrants. Commentators and some Republicans described the way the bill was brought to the Senate floor as a “kabuki dance.”

One of the many facets that make up the rich Japanese culture is kabuki.

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This performance genre of singing and dancing (its characters mean “sing,” “dance” and “skill”) is highly stylized with extravagant costumes, scenery and high plot predictability. Kabuki portrays a believable story in a symbolic and structured way, unlike the way it would happen in reality.

A typical wedding ceremony is a form of kabuki with beautiful and extraordinary dresses and tuxes, spelled-out performances, places and statements. Everyone knows what will happen, and some will even cry.

But this stylized form brings a special sense of meaning to the act of getting married. In contrast, a championship football game is not kabuki-like.

In English, the term “kabuki dance” has come to mean an often useless, highly ritualized performance with predictable results. While its use ignores the beauty and complexity of the kabuki, the English term can be very apt, especially for a description of the political process.

So it was with the Senate vote on the DREAM Act. The act would have allowed children who, along with their parents, immigrated to America illegally, a path to U.S. citizenship. A child’s illegal status does not interfere with most of his or her activities.

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But when a child becomes an adult and wishes to attend college or enter the military or work, the absence of documentation not only denies him or her that chance, but exposes the young adult to the real possibility of being returned to the land of his or her birth, even though he or she may not even remember it.

The DREAM Act would have offered legal status to those who attended college or joined the military and, upon completion of either, eligibility for citizenship. Of all of the issues addressing illegal immigrants, this is one that draws the greatest sympathy from all quarters.

So why did it fail? By bringing the measure to the Senate floor and making it impossible for Republicans to make amendments or add other provisions, the Democratic leadership destined it for legislative failure but theatrical success, making the Republicans look obstructionist and anti-immigrant.

It furthered a popular view that there will be no immigration reform in the recently sworn-in 112th Congress because Republicans will oppose such provisions.

The Republican vote in the Senate was proof. It follows that now that the GOP has the majority in the House and a stronger minority in the Senate, immigration reform is dead for this Congress.

The opposite of legislative kabuki dance is “Congress being Congress,” a phrase used by the new Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner of Ohio.

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He means that rather than submitting bills to the floor which are not subject to any committee action or any amendments from others, as was done with the DREAM Act, he will encourage the appropriate committees to hold hearings and eventually bring a bill to the floor subject for debate and amendments.

The committee and subcommittee on immigration is the House Judiciary Committee and the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee. The GOP leadership sent out a strong signal on how it viewed immigration reform when Rep. Steve King of Iowa, in line to be chairman of the subcommittee on immigration, lost his bid to Rep. Elton Gagley of California.

King was viewed as a vocal advocate of a tougher immigration stand and Gagley as more moderate. The choice by the Republican leadership of a moderate on immigration policy to chair that subcommittee indicates that it will let Congress be Congress on immigration reform.

Dairy farmers have their own dream act in the immigration debate. They want a supply of unquestionably legal labor to work on their farms. The current state of affairs is unacceptable.

The immigration issue goes beyond labor for dairy farms or citizenship for those brought here as children. Estimates state that 7.5 to 12 million, even 20 million, people in the U.S. are here illegally. The generally accepted number is approximately 11 to 12 million, or four out of every 100 people in the country.

Those seeking much tighter enforcement of immigration rules and opposing any effort to provide even temporary legitimacy to those who are here illegally, do so with the belief that America is a nation of laws, that those laws should be honored; guests should honor their hosts’ laws and good guests would never invite themselves into a country contrary to the hosts’ wishes.

The audacity of anyone who breaks such a law should deprive him or her of any legitimacy, whether it be a work permit or citizenship.

The opposing argument is that these individuals came seeking work and filled jobs left vacant by Americans. The work permit system is broken. These people come with a great work ethic and they have become vital parts of the communities in which they live.

The removal of one illegal alien has an impact on other citizens of the U.S., including children, spouses and employers. The forcible removal of 12 million individuals from this country would require such a massive mobilization of military and police power that it would completely undermine the foundations of our country.

But illegal immigration brings other problems to the country. At the forefront is national security; a porous border will allow enemies of the U.S. to enter and move about the country undetected. The hiring of illegal aliens also presents a huge problem in taxation and demands on social services and education, because of the lack of proper documentation.

For years, the evasion of employment laws was largely done through the forgery of documents. As agencies have cracked down through audits of employers’ I-9s, it is now largely done through identity fraud. Now there are real, living victims.

Dairy farmers are not the only ones who depend on immigrant labor. In addition to agriculture and landscaping, the hospitality industry is heavily dependent upon immigrant employment. High-tech companies, such as Microsoft and Google, are always seeking highly trained talent; and student visas, particularly to graduate and doctorate programs, have also suffered as immigration has tightened.

In response, international companies have established divisions where the talent can be obtained and used and made part of the larger global enterprise. That, in and of itself, deprives the U.S. economy of the value from such wages.

Finally, we all must remember that we are a nation of immigrants and the blending of many ethnic and national groups will shape our future as a country. This uncertainty has to be resolved, workers need to be available for valuable sectors of the economy, and our borders need to be secured.

That will take an act of Congress, which comes about by many people pursuing their interests, but in which the outcome is not known. It cannot be done with a “kabuki dance.”

Individual things such as the DREAM Act or Ag-Jobs, cannot pass alone, but only as part of comprehensive immigration legislation. That also includes border security, employment verification and corrections to the tax and identity systems that have been harmed by those who have sought to get around the tightening rules. There is no easy, simple answer, but it can happen, by Congress being Congress. PD

Ben Yale

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