Goldman Sachs, Arizona Immigration Law Dominates Week In Politics

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Washington this week was focused on overhauling the rules for our banks and our borders. Host Michel Martin gets an update on financial reform and immigration reform from Cynthia Tucker, columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead in Faith Matters, a discussion about the black church. Last week we heard from the author of a provocative essay who argued that the black church is dead. Today, we hear a different perspective.

But first, it's time for our weekly political chat. Washington this week was focused on overhauling the rules for our banks and our borders. First the banks, Democrats were shot down twice this week when they tried to bring up their financial overhaul bill for debate in the Senate. On the third try, Republicans relented and let the bill move forward.

And immigration surged back into the headlines this week, three years after a comprehensive overhaul was handily defeated in the Senate. The Arizona state government brought the debate back to life when Governor Jan Brewer signed a very stringent new immigration bill into law last week. And yesterday, Senate Democrats introduced their plan for a new fix to immigration in the United States.

To talk about both these contentious and important issues, we've invited Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who's kind enough to drop by from time to time. Also with us is Wade Henderson. He's also been with us before. He's the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. They're both here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome to you both, thank you for coming.

Mr. WADE HENDERSON (President, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights): Hello.

Ms. CYNTHIA TUCKER (Columnist, Atlanta Journal-Constitution): Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Cynthia, let me start with you. The AFL-CIO, the SEIU, a host of other labor unions marched on Wall Street yesterday just lambasting the big banks in general. I just want to play a short clip from Richard Trumka. He's president of the AF of L-CIO and he was interviewed on CNBC. Here's what he had to say.

Mr. RICHARD TRUMKA (President, AFL-CIO): Look, they made billions of dollars and they're still making billions of dollars and they still don't get it. They're back to business as usual. That's why we need Wall Street reform, and that's why we want them to start paying for the jobs that they destroyed, 11 million of them.

MARTIN: So, what's the point of a march like that? What's it designed to achieve?

Ms. TUCKER: Michel, it's designed to keep pressure on Congress, first of all. Let's not forget that Republicans had threatened to filibuster the bill, to stand in front of it. They relented, but it's a good idea for labor unions and for ordinary citizens to keep the pressure on Congress. And let's not forget either that it's good for any organization, whether organized labor or any other groups to be allied with a popular cause like Wall Street reform. We are all furious with Wall Street, with the big banks because they did bring the economy to the brink of collapse.

MARTIN: Why do you say we're all furious, though? Clearly, we all are not because if that were the case, then the Republicans would not have been in the position to hang tough on keeping the bill from the floor. Remember, as the president said, he wasn't asking them to vote for the bill, he was asking them to just let the bill be debated on the floor. Clearly they felt that there was some political benefit to doing that. So, tell me, what's the opposite side of this? What's the other argument?

Ms. TUCKER: I'm not sure that there is another good argument. First of all, polls show that voters overwhelmingly back Wall Street reform. But let's remember two things about the Republicans. First of all, they saw an opportunity to get more campaign contributions from Wall Street. Wall Street had swung over to Democrats in the past several years, giving more of their contributions to Democrats than to Republicans. So Republicans saw an opportunity. If we stand in the way of Wall Street reform, we may be able to get some of those contributions back.

But there are also, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, head of the Republicans in the Senate, had the idea as soon as Obama was inaugurated: let's stand in the way of everything that the president tried to accomplish. And so they stuck with that play, that tactic through health care reform. They think it served them well then. And then they stupidly stuck with it for a little while through Wall Street reform.

But I think after a while, there were many Republican members of the Senate who said to Mitch McConnell, this isn't playing very well back home.

MARTIN: Now, Wade, you've talked with us a lot over the past year about what you and other civil rights leaders consider abusive and discriminatory practice by the mortgage industry that were particularly targeting African-Americans and Latinos for what you have called predatory practices. I wanted to ask you how this financial overhaul measure will address those issues. Does it?

Mr. HENDERSON: Well, let me say at the outset that Cynthia Tucker is absolutely right. Look, money is the mother's milk of politics. And after the Supreme Court's recent decision and Citizens United, we have the potential for virtually unlimited amounts of money being invested in political campaigns. And banks and the business community obviously have a distinct advantage.

But Richard Trumka was right to focus attention on Wall Street. The financial collapse that we are now wrestling with began in the subprime mortgage community. And subprime mortgages had their greatest victims in African-American and Latino households and poor women, single-head households, who were frequently victimized even though they qualified for preferred loans. They actually were moved into subprime loans to their detriment.

Rich Trumka is now trying to focus attention on that and asking for the same kind of balance that we've shown for Wall Street. He wants that for Main Street. So what that means is that we need reforms to ensure that people who are facing foreclosure are protected, don't lose their homes. We're asking for judges to be able to modify bankruptcy laws to help people stay in their homes.

Secondly, we're asking mortgage companies to provide greater relief than they are willing to do now voluntarily. Now, the financial reform bill that's currently pending has a consumer protection agency that will have responsibility and some independence and the resources necessary to ensure that these predatory practices are not pursued in the future. But we also need a program that helps to respond to people who are in crisis today.

Secondly, Richard Trumka is really pushing a jobs campaign. It's a campaign that the civil rights community fully embraces. I mean, we recognize that so many jobs have been lost. It's literally impossible for the private sector alone to respond to those needs.

So that combination of factors: Wall Street reform, focus on mortgage foreclosure and the jobs initiative are all part of what Trumka was talking about and it's fully embraced by the civil and human rights community.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly political chat with Wade Henderson. He's the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; and Cynthia Tucker, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. We're talking about the week's news, especially the two big stories - financial reform and immigration.

So, let's switch to immigration now. You know, how did this issue just kind of surge to the front of the news headlines, Cynthia? I mean, it just seemed as though there was just stasis on this point. I mean, part of it obviously was that then-senator, presidential candidate Barack Obama and Senator John McCain, the two presidential contenders, were essentially in agreement on this issue. So it didn't get that much conversation during the campaign. But the general consensus was the legislative calendar is crowded, there's no room for it, it'll have to wait. All of a sudden it's front burner again.

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I think we have Arizona to thank for that. The Arizona legislature passed a really shameful piece of legislation that practically mandates racial profiling. It gives police not only the right to stop anybody they believe - they suspect of being in the country illegally, but it practically forces police officers to stop people who they believe are in the country illegally.

Now, how you tell that somebody might be in the country illegally just by looking at them is open to question. So, in fact, this awful piece of legislation practically mandates racial profiling, and that forced the White House and Congress to at least talk about some action. Now, let me point out that Harry Reid had brought up immigration reform a few weeks before.

MARTIN: That's the Senate majority leader.

Ms. TUCKER: Exactly.

MARTIN: A Democrat, of course.

Ms. TUCKER: A Democrat who is in trouble in his race for reelection in Nevada. And cynics believe that Harry Reid brought up immigration reform just to court Latino voters in his reelection campaign. That may or may not be true. But I think the White House and Democrats in Congress were still quite content to ignore the issue. But you cannot - the White House and the Justice Department could not ignore a law that invites civil rights violations.

MARTIN: Wade, I wanted to ask you just in a couple of minutes that we have left, where's the civil rights community on this question now? When I talked to a local NAACP leader in Arizona earlier this week, he is organizing activism against this bill for the same reason that Cynthia just described. But when I ask him how does the grassroots membership - because the NAACP is a grassroots organization...

Mr. HENDERSON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...responds to this? And he said it's not a priority for our members because they think it's - intellectually, philosophically, emotionally, they don't like it, but they also feel that they have other problems right now. I want to ask you about that.

Mr. HENDERSON: Well, sure. And to some degree that's absolutely true. I mean, I think most communities are now wrestling with the jobs crisis and trying to figure out how they respond to the economic difficulties we face today. And people are also concerned about the quality of public education available to their children.

But having said that, immigration reform is a national issue. It's not a partisan issue and it's reached a level of crisis that requires a federal response. I think what we are responding to is of course the problem posed by ten and a half million undocumented persons living in the United States in the shadows outside of the protection of our laws and policy. And it actually has a negative effect on our economy in several ways.

First of all, with ten and a half million people in undocumented status, they don't qualify for the new health care program. And they still pose a drain on resources because they seek only emergency care. Secondly, in the work force, we have now a group of undocumented workers who are easily exploited and sometimes preferred by employers who want to take advantage of them. But if you regularize their status, of course you have them competing on equal level with low-wage workers regardless of race and ethnicity.

And then, thirdly, from a political standpoint, Arizona has really signaled, as Cynthia Tucker said, it has triggered a national crisis. The failure of the federal government to respond creates a vacuum in which state and local governments will enact a patchwork of new policies that will have - make life hell for people on the streets in those communities and represent the single greatest violation of American rights in recent time and a real contradiction on the policies and view that Americans have of themselves.

MARTIN: So, very briefly, before we let you go, Cynthia Tucker told us that the actions of Arizona have kind of pushed this issue to the top of the - or at least near the top of the priority list for the White House and Congress, even if they would have preferred that it not be there. Has it had the same effect on civil rights organizations?

Mr. HENDERSON: I think it has, and I think it's a very true statement. I think what we're arguing now is that the Democratic proposal that has been laid out on the table here in Washington is a good starting point. You need Republican leadership to join the effort because you can't get a bill unless it's bipartisan.

I'll also remind you that there are immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean who are likely to be affected by these policies in a significant way. African-Americans have a stake in this outcome, but they also have a concern about the broader community and they're responding to that in a very positive way.

MARTIN: Wade Henderson is president of the Leadership Conference. Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio for our weekly political chat. And I thank you both for joining us.

Ms. TUCKER: Thanks, Michel.

Mr. HENDERSON: Thank you.

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