Story 1 The Game Is On
Summer, 2001: Secret negotiations between the governments of the US and Mexico break into front page news, igniting a national debate on the overhaul of the U.S. immigration system that reflects the country's split over the issue. Advocates see the pro-reform perspective shared by President Bush and Senators Ted Kennedy and Sam Brownback as an incredible alignment of the stars. Then 9/11 attacks shatter any hope of comprehensive reform. But around the country, the issue resurfaces in November's local elections. In a heated city council race in Iowa, we discover the seeds of the battle to come.
The thing that got us hooked on this story back in 2001 wasn't a passionate political position, but a report from a Washington think tank, a groundbreaking study by noted migration expert and founder of the new Migration Policy Institute, Demetri Papademetriou. Demetri and his team reframed the immigration debate in economic terms and outlined a plan to fix every aspect of American immigration policy in a way that would also offer millions of people living here illegally a way to become citizens.
All summer there had been secret negotiations between the governments of the US and Mexico based on that paper, but when the news broke on the front page of The New York Times, it ignited a debate that reflected this country's split over the issue. Now, to heighten the drama that much more, President Vicente Fox of Mexico is scheduled to make the first state visit to the White House of the still-young Bush administration in early September. In preparation, both sides of the debate, pro-immigration advocates and the growing movement that opposes illegal immigration led by Congressman Tom Tancredo, gear up for the publicity and opportunities ahead.
For advocates like Frank Sharry and his colleagues, the pro-reform perspective shared by the new President and supportive Senators like Ted Kennedy and Sam Brownback is an incredible alignment of the stars. The Bush administration itself is clearly still divided over the issue, but on September 6th, President Bush faces cameras on the south lawn of the White House with President Fox and announces his support for the legalization of millions of undocumented workers.
The think tank idea has moved a long way! At a Senate hearing the following day, even the formerly adversarial but esential partners for such a deal -- the business community and the labor movement -- are represented by their national leaders, explaining why they would support a Grand Bargain compromise on immigration, and pledging to give it a try. On the dais, Senators Kennedy and Brownback promise to bring along their respective parties. Backstage negotiations proceed furiously from there, with talk building that a bill will be passed into law before the end of the year.
Five days later, on Tuesday, September 11th, any hope of comprehensive reform vanishes. All thought turns to security. The pro-immigration advocacy community is in shock, then mourning. No one in Washington will be talking about immigration for a long time to come.
But around the country, the issue is still unresolved. Earlier that summer, a town in Iowa called Mason City had attracted national attention when the immigration argument broke into the public square, then made it onto the CBS Evening News. A national anti-immigration organization, Project USA, had enlisted local grandmother Janice Easley to maneuver their Truthmobile into the high school band parade.
Now, with Janice's help, straight-talking city council candidate Max Weaver, a man with a history of ruffling feathers, is running to unseat incumbent Lori Henry in the upcoming election. Lori has been saddled with the implementation of a new plan by the Governor's office to "create a welcoming environment for newcomers" to the state. This Model Cities Plan is controversial for many reasons, and Lori's personal run-ins with Janice only add confusion to the controversy. All of a sudden the issue of immigration is at the center of the city council race.
Near the end of the campaign, Frank Sharry travels to Iowa to give a media training seminar in strategic communications on immigration to the Model Cities administrators around the state. It's a eureka moment for Lori, whose views on immigration have been shaped by her work teaching English as a second language.
"Where were you six months ago before I made all these mistakes?" she asks Frank. The next day, she wins re-election to Mason City's city council.
A couple of months later, back in Washington, Frank's community is making a first stab at starting all over. In a big tent conference at the end of January, they asses the new landscape, as Demetri tells a packed conference hall, "Take everything you ever wanted for immigration reform before 9/11, and put it in an envelope, clearly marked SECURITY".
Things are different now, as dark reports on backlash around the country and especially in Iowa confirm. Grassroots activists are rallying against the "New Iowans" initiative, with a message as anti-corporate as it is anti-immigrant--agribusiness wants cheap farm labor which amounts to importing poverty. But Frank's colleague Angie Kelley reminds the audience just how close they had been on September 10th, in a meeting at The White House. Not everyone agrees on the way forward, but Frank does his best to encourage them to begin again where they left off.
Back in Mason City, things keep on changing. Janice takes on another grassroots cause, Max wins his next three City Council races, and Lori begins to see a clear new direction for her life. The complicated, vital and terribly American relationship to "the immigration issue" weaves through every bit of it.