Bush the Alien

Let’s get a couple of things straight about the immigration speech President George W. Bush unreeled Monday night from the Oval Office. His address had nothing to do with actual border policy and everything to do with domestic electoral politics.

The real mission of the 6,000 National Guard troops he has called out is to quell the rebellion on the president’s right flank, the flaring mutiny of his own conservative base. Indeed, if the president were being honest, the newly mobilized troops would be taken off the federal payroll and moved onto the books of the 2006 national Republican campaign.

They certainly aren’t going to be stopping illegal immigration. Most of the Guard will be unarmed. They will be barred from patrolling the border itself, as well as from confronting, apprehending or even guarding the undocumented. The troops will be given solely behind-the-scenes, low-profile, mostly invisible tasks of pushing paper, driving vans, and manning computers. Bush could have saved the taxpayers a load and sent a few battalions of Boy Scouts to do this job.

I’ve spent oodles of hours and days on the border over the last five years, including many contacts and visits with the Border Patrol. I’ve yet to bump into a single one of the 350 National Guard already deployed on the border.

Of course, “sending troops to the border” sounds great—if you are among those who actually believe there is a technological or military fix possible for our busted-out immigration policy. That’s what Bush is hoping, at least. That conservatives who are fed up with him, especially on what they see as his failure to stop the human tide of poor people washing across the desert, will be revitalized by the manufactured fantasy of armed, crew-cut, uniformed young Americans standing shoulder-to-shoulder from Yuma to El Paso.

Chances are Bush’s border move will be no more successful than his management of the war in Iraq or his response to Katrina. The close-the-border faction of his own party is highly unlikely to accept Monday night’s sop. They know, just like the governors of New Mexico and California know, just as local law enforcement on the border knows, that Bush’s gesture is but a photo-op political stunt. They want the border closed, period. And their political representatives in the House – the Sensenbrenners and the Tancredos—are showing no signs of softening their resistance to both a guest worker plan as well as legalization path for the illegals already here.

And even those who bought the get-tough portion of the president’s speech also heard him endorse “comprehensive immigration reform” and a “temporary worker program,” precisely the sort of measures scorned and denounced as an “amnesty.” So much for placating the Right. Likewise, Bush’s dispatch of troops—no matter how empty and symbolic—contains enough reality to rankle the more liberal forces in the pro-immigration coalition.

In short, the president has now managed to alienate himself further from his own base as well as from some of his more reluctant and expedient allies on immigration. Heckuvajob, Dubya.

Bush’s plan may, however, provide some short-term benefit to some very nervous and endangered Republicans House incumbents, offering them some short-term political cover. But the longer-term risk seems enormous. A growing number of Republican strategists know that the Latino vote will loom ever more crucial in deciding which party will command governing majorities. And they are worried that the long-term damage of the president pandering to the anti-immigration forces could be devastating.

What a modern-age media spectacle was whipped up, by the way, over this totally forgettable speech. CNN treated the speech with all the gravitas of the launch of a manned mission to Mars, complete with a countdown clock and rolling all-day coverage. With boundless shamelessness, the all-news network ensconced the sputtering Lou Dobbs as one of its on-duty color commentators for this artificially constructed event, something akin to having asked George Wallace to objectively narrate the Great March on Washington. I don’t fault Dobbs, a modern-day Ted Baxter who has found a lucrative niche as CNN’s resident Minuteman. But, please, let us heap industrial amounts of shame on the babbling Wolf Blitzer who, repeatedly, deferred to Dobbs as if he were the font of all authority on this issue.

A phalanx of reporters will now head to the border, hoping to file feature stories on the newly arrived Guard members. And one can expect that the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense will accommodate the media spoon-feeding. The safe bet, though, is that this speech, in spite of the momentary cable hype, will soon evaporate into the mists of memory.

The truth be told, the totality of Bush’s speech was rather reasonable. Stripping away the political theatrics and the empty phrasing, and putting aside the undue emphasis on deployment of the Guard, the president did endorse the sort of bi-partisan reforms proposed by a coalition stretching from John McCain and the Chamber of Commerce to Ted Kennedy and the Service Employees International Union. And he called directly on both houses of Congress to finally agree upon and pass a bill that reflects that consensus.

Problem is that Bush should have been speaking out forcefully in favor of these moves ever since he raised comprehensive reform as a priority in his 2004 State of the Union speech. Unfortunately, he hid under his desk on this issue for the last two years. Only after the right-wing of his base rebelled and only after the pro-immigrant movement blossomed in the streets—that is, only after the White House was completely overtaken by events—did the president act.

And as usual, it was too little, too late.

Marc Cooper writes for LA Weekly. This column originally appeared on his blog,


Tookie’s Inhumanity

This week Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will decide whether the convicted murderer and co-founder of the Crips gang, Stanley “Tookie” Williams, lives or dies. But that’s all that should be decided. Not whether Williams has been redeemed. Merely, will he be executed on December 13?

I’m a death penalty abolitionist and therefore believe, deeply, that capital punishment is wrong; that it is barbaric, that it belittles all of us, whether or not its victims are innocent or guilty as charged.

The celebrity campaign championing Williams, I suppose, is a tactical necessity to draw attention to his case. When Schwarzenegger holds the first California clemency hearing since 1992 this week to decide his fate, the governor, after all, will be judging Williams, not the overall immorality of capital punishment.

And while I believe Williams (and everyone else on death row) should not be put to death, I find myself extremely uncomfortable with any notion that Williams has been redeemed. There can be no redemption for someone like Williams. There can only be contrition. Only a commutation of sentence. Not elevation to sainthood.

When a convicted killer or his supporters claim “rehabilitation” I think it becomes fair game to see what the starting point is of their personal journey. How much do they have to make up for? That’s not to say individuals can’t or shouldn’t be rehabilitated nor that we shouldn’t applaud them when they do undergo some change.

In Williams’ case, he starts out in a very deep and dark hole. His four victims were horribly massacred. No court in the land, including the liberal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, has seen enough exculpatory evidence to overturn his conviction.
Nor does Williams deny his central role in organizing our own local Murder Inc., the Crips. I accept at face value his claims to rehabilitation. I know he has written children’s books; that he has advocated gang truces; that he has renounced violence; that some Swiss professor, somehow, nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Great. In my ledger books, that might—I repeat, might—balance out the wholesale evil that Williams has wrought earlier in life. Ask me what I feel about him, and if in a generous mood, I would stay coldly and begrudgingly neutral. Ask me to celebrate him, however, and I’m likely to go the other way. While his sentence stems from the murder of four individuals, any judgment of Tookie Williams, the man, must also weigh the terminated lives of literally hundreds of poor, black youth who had no trials, no appeals and no defense campaigns before they were summarily executed by the Crips’ shooters.

The larger question, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson put it earlier this week, is how do we view Williams’ case against the larger backdrop of America’s brimming death row? Robinson, as I, repudiates capital punishment but adds, “it can’t be right to save Williams just because he’s a famous desperado (or former desperado) with famous friends, and then blithely go back to snuffing out the lives of other criminals who lack his talent for public relations.”

More than 3,000 people currently sit on death row, slowly awaiting execution. About one of five are in California. Blacks and whites have been the victims of murder in almost equal numbers, but 80 percent of those executed since 1977 were convicted of murders of white people. And more than 40 percent of those awaiting execution are blacks.

The most shocking statistic in this stew is that a full third or more of death-row prisoners don’t have legal representation. It’s a fair assumption that most of the condemned are, indeed, guilty. Many are neither remorseful nor rehabilitated. Except for the ubiquitous Mumia Abu-Jamal and now Tookie Williams, none of them have the notable and the famous lobbying passionately for their lives. They remain as anonymous and as forgotten as their victims — including Williams’ victims.

All those inmates deserve commutation as much as Williams. It’s my sincere hope that Governor Schwarzenegger, for whatever reasons he might have in his head, will do the right thing and grant clemency. Then we all better sit down and figure out how we, once and for all, do away with this barbaric device of the death penalty without having to lionize those who, in the end, richly deserve a life behind bars without parole.

This article originally appeared in LA Weekly.