Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Tomorrow They Vote

By Shawn Healy
Yesterday, May 1, a day of international labor solidarity with roots in Chicago, has come to be known in recent years as a day that immigrants and their supporters across the country demonstrate in favor of humane reforms to U.S. immigration law. Numbers peaked in 2006 when two competing bills winded their way through the halls of Congress. The House version focused largely on border security and was deemed overly punitive by its detractors. The Senate bill was more comprehensive in nature. It too included border security measures, but also an expanded guest worker program and a path to citizenship for the estimated 12-20 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally. The result was a stalemate, and the only legislation that passed authorized the construction of a 700-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Last year the marches did not match the vigor of 2006, but were impressive nonetheless. The Senate constructed a similar compromise bill, but with a tougher path toward citizenship for illegal immigrants and a shift away from an emphasis on family reunification to a focus on job skills in the application process for regularized citizenship. The efforts of a bi-partisan legion of supporters failed miserably, and the House failed to even take up the cause. Congress instead resorted to piecemeal reform, and even these efforts met a polarized end. For example, the DREAM Act, legislation that would bestow citizenship upon children of illegal immigrants who completed two years of college or military service, was shot down when attached to a defense appropriations bill.

The status quo is a genuine political stalemate. The Dept. of Homeland Security, through ICE, has stepped up workplace raids, as enforcement of contemporary immigration laws lies largely in the hands of employers. Contractors, factories, and farms face a severe labor shortage as key guest worker programs are set to expire. Congress lacks the will to act in an election year, especially considering the backlash that presumptive GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain faced last summer when he spearheaded the bi-partisan immigration reform derided by its opponents as "blanket amnesty" with his Democratic colleague Sen. Ted Kennedy. President Bush, despite his early leadership on the issue, is weighed down by the lowest approval ratings in modern history, redefining the meaning of a "lame duck."

It is no wonder that the numbers at yesterday's rallies were a mere echo of those the past couple of years. The spirit of those pursuing immigration reform has literally been beaten down from all comers. This year's organizers realized that this is not an issue only for immigrants, particularly Latinos. In Chicago, they approached civil rights organizations like the Rainbow-PUSH coalition, but also labor organizations, as this issue carries both social and economic dimensions.

As Winne pointed out so eloquently in her post last Friday, this is an concern that crosses party lines. Businesses, a core component of the GOP base, tend to favor comprehensive, humane reforms to restore access to an able and willing labor supply, while many unions, an age-old staple of the Democratic Party, see it as a threat to member jobs and a downward pressure on wages. Social conservatives, rooted firmly in the Republican ranks, are miffed at the violations of law and order, while civil libertarians, predominantly in the Democratic mix, argue that newcomers broke only a silly law, crossing an imaginary line.

Wherever you land in this complicated matrix, we can all agree that the present situation is simply unacceptable. Repairing a broken system will require a level of political willpower seemingly lacking in Washington as of now. The three remaining presidential candidates, Sens. Clinton, McCain and Obama, all supported the aforementioned comprehensive reform, along with fortified border security. McCain has seemingly stepped away from this grandiose vision, claiming that he heard the voices of Americans who do not trust the competence of their government. He promises to seal the border, have this certified by governors in the region, then pursue comprehensive reform. Clinton and Obama have been less specific on the issue, instead quibbling over whether illegal immigrants should be issued drivers licenses by states (Clinton says no, Obama yes).

Let me remind you that President Bush holds a similar position on reform, and that Congress is likely to have little turnover this fall regardless of who wins the White House. This means that leadership with have to come from one of these presidential wannabes. Rest assured, those who marched yesterday will have their voices heard one way or the other. For those who are eligible to vote in November, expect them to uphold their promise to participate ("Today we march, tomorrow we vote"). Therefore, the White House hopefuls and their peers in Congress should heed these words. Come May 1, 2009, the streets of America's cities will be filled once more by those demanding political courage to mend a fractured system. Will our President Clinton/McCain/Obama be up to the challenge?


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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