Ideological drag show dominates Washington immigration hearing

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

Republicans and Democrats staged an ideological drag show Friday at the first hearing for the pending immigration bill, demonstrating their efforts to win emotional support from the nation’s large bloc of influential middle-class voters.

Those voters want the cheaper services provided by immigrants, but they also want to feel good about their treatment of poor immigrants and poor Americans.

Republicans — who are often seen as shills for big business — presented an African-American labor lawyer to argue that an amnesty of 11 million people and the planned inflow of more than 1 million company-sponsored workers per year, would hurt working-class Americans, especially African-Americans.

In turn, the Democratic-led group presented a witness from a think-tank founded by a major GOP donor, to argue that the bill can increase the population, expand the economy, shrink the deficit, and end the unwanted controversy over illegal immigration. That’s a contrast from the public image of Democrats as anti-business, pro-immigrant spenders.

The witnesses got top billing once Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano withdrew from the high-profile hearing amid wall-to-wall news coverage of the Boston terrorism pursuit.

At first, the bloody murders — suspected to have been committed by two Chechen immigrants — allowed the bill’s opponents to hint that the proponents of greater immigration were increasing the danger to the public.

Immigration proponents protested.

“I’d like to ask that all of us not jump to conclusions regarding the events in Boston or try to conflate those events with this legislation,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, the leading Democratic proponent of the immigration bill.

More practically, the committee’s Democratic chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, changed the subject by calling the two labor and economics experts to testify earlier than scheduled.

The GOP witness was Peter Kirsanow, a labor lawyer who serves on the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

“Our study suggests that a 10% immigrant-induced increase in the supply of a particular skill group is associated with a reduction in the black wage of 21.5%, a reduction in the black employment rate of 5.9 percentage points and an increase in the black institutionalization rate of 1.3 percent,” he said.

“Granting amnesty to illegal immigrants will only further harm African-American workers … [ensure] more people will come to America illegally and will further crowd African-American men (and other low-skilled men and women) out of the workforce,” he testified.

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top GOP member on the Senate’e banking committee, enthusiastically backed Kirsanow.

The immigration bill “is madness,” said Sessions, whose home state has curbed business’ use of illegal immigrants, amid protests from business groups.

“We have more low-skilled labor than we can find jobs for today … the average wage of American workers has been declining relative to inflation for 15 years,” he said.

“This bill was written by big business, by agriculture business, rather than by the public,” he declared.

The pending bill includes a planned amnesty for at least 11 million illegals. It also opens up several new channels that would boost annual immigration up from today’s 1.1 million mix of immigrants and guest-workers, to an annual inflow of 2 million-plus family-unification immigrants, white-collar guest workers and university professionals. It is a top priority for President Barack Obama, whose other goals — gun-control and a tax increase — have so far failed.

The Democrats’ Republican witness offered up a lime-colored glasses economic projection that predicted more immigrants would enlarge the economy, aid business and boost employment.

“Immigration reform is a potentially powerful tool of economic policy that can positively affect economic growth and help shrink the federal deficit,” Douglas Holtz-Eakin testified. After including the costs of immigration, the federal deficit would be reduced by $2.7 trillion, said his testimony.

That’s catnip to middle-class voters who worry about taxes and deficits.

Democrats, including Schumer, were quick to endorse Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum. In fact, Schumer has repeatedly endorsed Holtz-Eakin’s projection, including on Thursday, when he joined seven other Senators to formally announce the bill.

The Thursday announcement was boosted by an array of support from advocates that are often rivals. They included Rich Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, and Grover Norquist, an advocate for business and the leader of the Americans for Tax Reform anti-tax group.

In the Friday hearing, several Democratic Senators explained their support for the bill in very progressive terms. They said it is good for women, it will bring foreigners “out of the shadows,” and bring vibrant diversity into regions with stable societies.

But other Democratic Senators matched Sessions’ and Schumer’s stereotype-breaking approach.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a very progressive Democrat from Rhode Island, pressed Kirsanow to endorse pro-immigration testimony from Alan Greenspan, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve who is normally reviled by progressives.

“Unauthorized immigrants serve as a flexible component of our workforce, often a safety valve when demand is pressing and among the first to be discharged when the economy falters,” Greenspan said in an April 2009 Senate hearing on immigration.

Kirsanow responded by saying he endorsed immigration, but not so much that it disadvantages low-skill Americans.

Not all Republicans endorse Greenspan’s record or policy preferences.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who has strongly pushed the immigration bill, said an immigration inflow is needed to save the Social Security program.

He also cautiously criticized American workers. In South Carolina, he said, the meatpacking plants and peach orchards are staffed by immigrant Latinos, ensuring that Americans get cheap food.

“I’m not saying that people in South Carolina are lazy, I’m saying there are certain parts of the economy no matter what you do” that can’t attract American workers, he said. “That is a reality, that is uncomfortable to hear, and that is God’s truth,” he said.

In previous decades, the work was done by Americans, both white and black.

Schumer also tried to portray Kirsanow, the African-American witness, as mean.

“I know you’re for deporting all those 11 million,” he claimed. “Isn’t it better to have a system … where people can legally work?”

“I’m fully in favor of immigration, Kirsanow replied. But, he added, “we’re living in a fantasy land” if people expect the abuse of workers will be halted by “a stroke of the pen.”

The Democrats’ witness, Holtz-Eakin — a former aide to George H.W. Bush and an advisor to Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 — diplomatically slammed Kirsanow’s comments as anti-free market.

“I would hope our aspirations would be greater than protecting low-skill Americans from competition in perpetuity … and [instead] increasing their skills,” Holtz-Eakin said.

Still, he said, competition from foreign workers “is a real issue for our low-skilled workers.” But the competition can’t be avoided or evaded even by people living in states that have few immigrants, he suggested.

“Location has little to do with it,” he said.

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