David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
Political Campaign Season Becomes Class Warfare
by David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO (9/29/96) - The passage first of the welfare bill, and now the immigration bill, mark the conversion of political campaigns into a new form of class warfare against working people and the poor.

Gone are the days when campaign seasons produced deadlocks in Washington, as Democrats made a show of fighting to block Republican proposals to benefit the wealthy, and Republicans fought to stop Democratic proposals to increase social services. Now agreement between the two parties has greased the skids for the most far-reaching anti-poor proposals in half a century. And it's not the Republicans who have changed - it's the Democrats.

While launching rhetorical broadsides at Senator Dole and congressional Republicans, the real message of President Clinton and his campaign is that there are no political differences between him and his Republican rival beyond those of age, health and style. The heart of his reelection campaign woos marginal Republican voters, showing that the President can be just as hard on immigrants, minorities and poor people.

Agreement stripped both parties' conventions of political debate. There was nothing to argue about. Instead, large corporations financed them as opportunities for lobbyists to rub shoulders with those in power, or those who would replace them.

Both presidential candidates move smoothly from one lavish fundraiser to the next. In Silicon Valley the president picked up half a million dollars in a single dinner, from high-tech corporate contributors who make the creation of an anti-union environment a matter of principle, regardless of ethics and legality. He lavishes these executives with praise for their technological innovation.

His criticism is saved for those who can't attend and contribute. In his campaign's rhetoric, young people in minority communities become gang members, as he proposes curfews to make their presence on the streets at night a crime. Mothers and children who need public assistance in small portions, rather than the massive corporate subsidies and tax breaks enjoyed by his dinner companions, are a social problem. He lectures them in a voice he would never use with an equal, dwelling on their need to reform themselves out of poverty.

Being poor has become a personal defect, rather than a product of social inequality. Why not, therefore, simply agree to a process for cutting off benefits, rather than a messy debate over trying to end poverty?

Now comes the immigration bill, another joint project.

Again, Democrats and Republicans agree on a class war against the poor, in this case poor immigrants. No longer does either party promise security to workers who fear the loss of their jobs, or a better life to those angry over paychecks that no longer pay the bills. Instead, both parties point accusing fingers at immigrants, and pat themselves on the back for taking stern measures.

The result?

An immigrant family will now have to make much more than a poverty-level wage to petition for the husbands, wives or children they love. The overwhelming majority of immigrants are poor, as the lawmakers know. They will not qualify.

As the Rev. Jesse Jackson says, "these people work every day." The ones who will be unable to unite their families are the millions of seamstresses in sweatshops, room cleaners in hotels, strawberry pickers and low-wage factory workers. They will have to choose between permanent separation and the return to grinding poverty in their homeland.

Some of our most shameful laws banned the immigration of Filipina women in the 1920s and 30s, while prohibiting Filipino men from marrying other nationalities. Many thousands of men worked and grew old in labor camps and skid row hotels, unable to unite their families or start new ones. This is the history to which we now return.

But anyone with a million dollars to spend in America can buy a visa at the embassy tomorrow morning for themselves and their families.

This year immigration raids have started to become commonplace again in Latino communities, since the administration sent the message that it needs high-profile street sweeps to show it's serious about immigration. Who gets picked up? Men looking for a day's work on a street corner. A farm worker picking vegetables. Even children in poor neighborhoods, who have lost any immunity as they play or walk to and from school.

The new bill doubles the size of the Border Patrol. These sweeps of pot-holed barrio streets will become everyday events.

Under the transparent rubric of a "pilot program," the new immigration bill sets up the mechanism for a national work ID card. Discrimination prohibitions have been scrapped. After criticizing other countries for requiring work documents, they will become an everyday requirement for us too.

And who will have to show them? Not the president's dinner guests.

The undocumented will pay Social Security taxes, but receive no benefits. They will continue to drive to work in their beat-up cars, but the law will now prohibit them from having drivers licenses.

And the triumphal momentum of the President's sure-to-win campaign has swept along most of the Democrats in Congress. Those who take solace in the thought that a new, Democratic majority in Congress will undo the draconian measures in both welfare and immigration reform should consider the vote on the immigration bill in the House of Representatives. With 370 votes for the immigration bill, more Republicans (24) voted against it than Democrats (13). It is the backing of a Democratic senator, California's Diane Feinstein, that makes the immigration bill politically supportable for other Senate Democrats.

President Clinton will be reelected. But working people, the poor, and immigrants will have paid the price of this year's campaign.

They would have been far better off had it never taken place.

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