Roundtable: Iraq, Bush Immigration Reform

Tuesday's topics: the continued war in Iraq; President Bush's position on immigration reform; and soccer players in Italy who want an end to racist behavior by fans. Guests: Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition; and Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's Roundtable, President Bush promotes immigration reform, and soccer players protest racist fan behavior. Joining us from our bureau in New York, Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. Joining us from our headquarters in Washington, DC, Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; and Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, joins us from the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

All right, folks. Before we get to President Bush and the immigration stance, I wanted to get an idea from you guys about what you just heard, the discussion of withdrawal that has been going on, quite frankly, in earnest since Mr. Murtha brought it to the fore. Mary Frances Berry, how realistic do you believe the option of withdrawal is going to be in the immediate future for the United States?

Dr. MARY FRANCES BERRY (University of Pennsylvania): I would be willing to bet my house, of which I only have one, that troops will be withdrawn in large numbers before the midterm elections next fall, because the Republican Party believes that troops ought to be withdrawn, no matter what kind of rhetoric people use or what they say or what small steps or baby steps or how much they attack each other. The reality is that sometime before the election--and I was interested in your commentators, because someone said that well, they probably would take the new elections as the occasion to say there was a stable government. I don't care what happens in Iraq. It doesn't matter, just as it doesn't matter what's going on in Afghanistan now that is terrible and we're not going to do anything militarily. Some troops will be withdrawn, and the mantra will be from the administration, `We are in a withdrawal mode now and things are better,' and they will do this sometime. So I'm betting my house that this will happen before the next congressional elections.

GORDON: Michael Meyers, one might believe, no matter which side of the political fence you sit, that we have seen a number of missteps, from the questioning of sending in, quote, "too few troops" initially. We saw that call and someone actually be shown the door because he brought that to light. There's the question of the missteps from the big PR move of the president landing on that aircraft carrier in his garb suggesting that the mission was accomplished and here we sit today in this kind of quagmire. With all of this going on, one would be surprised at the gale-force wind that he has withstood so far. Do you believe he's going to take it to what he sees as an end? And if that is the case, what will that end be, by means of withdrawal, in your opinion?

Mr. MEYERS: Well, I really--and excuse the pun on `belief,' in the context of what I'm about to say. I believe that George Bush believes he has--is on a God mission. Seymour Hersh has in effect said that, and my reaction to that is: Oh, God. I think we sent in one troop too many to Iraq, and we shouldn't have been there. So this whole, quote, unquote, "debate" about withdrawal, staged withdrawal, how to get the troops out, when to get the troops out, if we should get the troops out--the debate itself is what we would call phoney, fraudulent. It is not a question of downsizing our troops. The question--the public policy question is why are we there and why don't we get the heck out? And we do not have on either side yet a critical mass, a majority of Democrats or Republicans who are saying, `Get out now.' You have people with their veterans' credentials and reputations and their military credentials saying--asking questions, serious questions, and the media is taking those questions and making hay out of it. But we do not have a commitment from George Bush or the military, the Pentagon to get out and to get out now.

GORDON: Eric Deggans, we have seen the United States over the course of the last decade sit in its most tenuous position in terms of authority, if you will, worldwide authority than ever before. Though we're still the world police, if you will, there are those who aren't as fearful of, as they would put it, `the bully.' Isn't the problem here to a great degree if you, as some people are calling it, cut and run or exit quicker than you might have before, continuing to allow that position to become more and more tenuous?

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (Media Critic, St. Petersburg Times): I think the real problems here is that there's never been a plan. There's never been a plan for getting in. There's never been a plan for stabilizing Iraq. There's never been a plan for how we would leave. And all of our actions have been dictated by domestic concerns. Just as we saw in the Vietnam War, realities on the ground aren't dictating this debate about withdrawal. It's the upcoming midterm elections and Republicans who are afraid to see rising body counts in Iraq as they go to face re-election. And that's the disturbing part about all of this is that we're not looking at the situation and trying to come up--well, the Bush administration is not looking at this situation and coming up with a level-headed, realistic plan for achieving our goals in Iraq. This is all about things that are happening in the US. And at some point, I think we'll come to realize that we'll never get Iraq to the point where, you know, we can declare victory and leave. So at some point, they'll find the smallest thing to justify the beginning of a withdrawal, and we'll see that start to happen. I agree with Mary.

GORDON: Doctor, how can we really look at this idea, the American public, that we're going to see troops pulled out, if nothing more than for fear of re-election? It's not even veiled or cloaked in anything. Is the...

Dr. BERRY: But it is.

GORDON: Will the American people feel duped?

Dr. BERRY: But, Ed, it is veiled and cloaked. What you're going to see is sort of a calculus going along here. There'll be some rhetoric about how things are improving. Then there will be a check on the poll numbers to see whether they're going up or down. And then there'll be a guts check with the members on the Hill to see how they feel from the folks back home. And then they'll be, `Oh, we better talk about bringing a few troops home. That seemed to work. Then let's try this.' So I think that if you look at all the ingredients, you know, the poll numbers, how the members feel, what the election looks like, we know that it has nothing to do with what happens on the ground, because we have stories now of terrible things happening on the ground in Afghanistan. But we're not talking about sending more troops there. As far as we're concerned, Afghanistan is over. So that it would be very easy to orchestrate--If you were in administration, you could do this; you have the bully pulpit--a situation where people think, `Oh, yes, it makes sense to sort of withdraw now if that's needed for your political calculations.' And that's what we have to watch.

GORDON: All right. Let me turn our attention to George Bush. Some have suggested--fans of the president--that he needed to step up and get some attention off of this war situation, do something domestically that would, in fact, bring him some good press, if you will, and some see that as his attempt to strengthen our borders, the border enforcement. He's out promoting immigration reform, Michael Meyers, with what he is calling his renewal for the guest worker plan.

Mr. MEYERS: Look. I think it's Orwellian. I think President Bush is really becoming incoherent in his policy initiatives as well as his speech patterns.

Dr. BERRY: Did you say `becoming'?

Mr. DEGGANS: Yeah, I was going to say, `Becoming?'

GORDON: So much to say he's been there...

Mr. MEYERS: Becoming. It's not becoming of you to interrupt me, ladies and gentlemen.

GORDON: ...for a while. All right. All right. Guys, come on.

Mr. MEYERS: I think that the whole notion of, quote, unquote, "immigration reform"--you know, conservative estimates are that we have 11 million undocumented workers or undocumented people in the United States. Now he wants a, quote, unquote, "guest worker program"--in other words, authorizing a lot of those 11 million to be here and at the same time beefing up border patrols to keep people out who want to be guest workers. It's just incomprehensible and, I think, incoherent. The border patrol, on one hand, not knowing who's in our land and still talking about homeland security on the other, and now, I think this notion of immigration reform, which is not immigration reform but just more rhetoric.

Dr. BERRY: Well, if it...

GORDON: Eric, we should note that this guest worker plan--forgive me, Mary, but we should note, Eric, that this guest worker plan could allow someone to stay upwards to six years then go back and stay a year, if one is to believe they would, in fact, do that, to their country and then perhaps come back again.

Mr. MEYERS: People won't go back now.

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, what's scary about this immigration plan is that it doesn't address sort of the basic denial that's part of our policy towards people who enter this country illegally. We need a lot of these folks to do jobs that Americans won't do, but we won't come up with a realistic system for ingraining them into our society. And we won't crack down on businesses that employ them illegally. Bush is caught in between these three fulcrums. He's got the business community that wants access to this cheap labor and needs access to this cheap labor. He's got the Hispanic community that's very sensitive about this issue and wants to see it handled fairly. And then he's got the conservatives in his own party who will not let him mention the dreaded A-word, amnesty. So he comes up with this guest worker program.

What I want to know is at the end of six years, who's going to go to these folks and tell them it's time to go home? And what illegal immigrant in their right mind would sign up for a program knowing that six years later, after they're established, they've had children in this country who are citizens and they've had some measure of stability in their life, now they have to go back home for a year before they can come back?

Dr. BERRY: Well, Eric...

Mr. DEGGANS: It doesn't make any sense.

Dr. BERRY: Eric it totally right about the details, Ed, and I agree with him, and Michael is right about the incoherence. But I would say that this whole immigration debate is just hokum. I'll use that expression. That's all it is. It's silly, because if you ask yourself, why don't we have thousands of immigrants trying to get into the country illegally from Canada? The answer is because they don't want to leave Canada to come here. Their standard of living and everything else is about like ours.

Mr. MEYERS: A lot of them are here.

Dr. BERRY: If you worked--there aren't that many who are here illegally compared to people who come over the border from Mexico. There are people all over the world who are flowing from one place where things aren't good to places where things are better. Look at the Africans trying to get into Europe and all that--people talking about it as a crisis. Look at the Haitians trying to come in, who we don't talk about, to the United States for a better life and fleeing persecution. People would not be coming over the border if they were not finding opportunity here. There's no way. I've been down along that border. I've looked at enforcement. I've spent time on these issues when I was at the Civil Rights Commission.

In point of fact, we're not going to stop people from coming over the border no matter what fences we build, whatever we do. They're going to come here in increasing numbers, and they're going to have children who are going to be American citizens because of the 14th Amendment, and we're not going to change the 14th Amendment. In point of fact--and the guest worker program won't work because people are not--unless they can stay here and become citizens. What we need is some rational policy which says: What do we do about all these people? They are going to be here. Should we have an amnesty every now and then? Should we try to help to fix the economy seriously in Mexico? And if we were to do it seriously--I don't mean on the border have those shops where people don't paid very much--but try to do something to improve the economy, and maybe they would move up and stay in Mexico, and the ones from south of there would be coming in illegally into Mexico. That's a long-run solution, but the debate is hokum because people on all sides have unrealistic expectations, and the immigrants are going to keep coming. They are going to keep coming.

Mr. MEYERS: That solution sounds like hokum to me.

GORDON: Let me sneak this in very quickly before we lose our time, and that is we're seeing protests in Europe this week. Midfield before the games, soccer players will protest racist behavior by some of the soccer fans there. We saw an excellent documentary, those of you who saw it on "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel." This is going on today in many soccer games, professional soccer games, where African players, black players are being pelted by bananas, monkey calls, racial epithets are thrown out, and this is during the course of the game. Eric Deggans, to some, there is shock and dismay, but others say that, in fact, it is not surprising.

Mr. DEGGANS: I think in sports, both in Europe and in America, we sort of see the veil lifted from how, you know, we as a society deal with these issues, and I think a lot of the racism that you're seeing in soccer is a racism that African immigrants have to endure in European countries all the time. We saw this happen in France, kicking off the riots and the violence there. We've seen it happen in England. Soccer hooligans are simply sort of reflecting these fissures that exist in the larger society. Skinhead culture, racist skinhead culture, grew out of the ska movement in England and was imported here to America through the national front political parties. So, you know, there's always been this friction between the African immigrants who are coming to Europe and coming to Britain and folks who will resist that. And it comes out in music, it comes out in sports, it comes out in pop culture...

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. DEGGANS: ...just as it does here in America.

GORDON: Mary, some will say the most shocking aspect of all of this is that we are just now seeing, after this going on for years, quite frankly, the Soccer Federation standing up and trying to do something about it.

Dr. BERRY: Yeah, because it's getting out of hand. I mean, soccer hooliganism will go on for almost no reason just because of the score in the game or nothing. But Eric is right. It's targeted toward these African immigrants, and all over Europe this is becoming more of a problem. It's a great problem perceived by people in Italy as to what to do. And so I think that what the federation is saying is that it's getting out of hand. Well, it's getting out of hand in society, so it's getting out of hand in the stands. And sooner or later, we're going to end up with someone getting seriously injured. So I think that it's--they, like some of the leaders in those countries, are now saying, `We have to sit down and figure out how to deal with this problem. We can't just let it continue to fester,' and I think that's a good thing.

GORDON: Michael?

Mr. MEYERS: My view is that in sports in particular, whether it's to the United States or elsewhere, there's just so many outbreaks and incidents of low-life behavior, and that include outbreaks and incidents of racism. And you certainly have those kinds of incidents in places other than Italy. Particularly, you have xenophobia and racism in particular in France, for example.

But I also remember--and there is progress here. I also remember that the Italians not so many years ago voted for a black woman to be Miss Italy over the protests of some of the judges. But the eyes--meaning the E-Y-E-S--as opposed to the ayes, the eyes had it. And so there is effort to be made against racism, and I think it's important and significant that some of the officials--the soccer officials--and we need more officials and celebrities speaking out against racism and calling it what it is, particularly in the stadiums: low-life behavior. And so make it not only unpopular but unfashionable. And you may need laws. So when you start throwing things into the game, you've got to start punishing people, like we're now punishing people who are so-called fans of the United States...

GORDON: Well, we should that the stadium--many of those stadiums now have been equipped with video equipment, and they are going around watching and trying to capture on videotape the perpetrators...

Mr. MEYERS: Oh, the eyes have it again. They're watching.

Mr. DEGGANS: I would say one...

GORDON: ...in terms of trying to do that. Real quick for me, Eric.

Mr. DEGGANS: I would say one quick thing. One of the problems I've always felt Europe has had with racism is their inability to even admit that it exists.

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. DEGGANS: So the fact that we have people standing up and admitting that this is going on...

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. DEGGANS: ...is also a positive sign.

Dr. BERRY: And stopping the...

GORDON: Well, unfortunately, that seems to be a problem everywhere.

Dr. BERRY: Stopping the hooliganism...

GORDON: Real quick, Mary, 10 seconds.

Dr. BERRY: Stopping the hooliganism in the stands will stop it there, but we've got to grapple with the larger issue...

GORDON: Yeah.

Dr. BERRY: ...of the immigration and the color problem and the issues in the society.

GORDON: Yeah. All right. Michael Meyers, Mary Berry and Eric Deggans, I thank you all for joining us, and I would say to you, Michael, that a beautiful woman has often trumped racism down through history. So I don't know if that's the best example we should give.

Mr. MEYERS: Whoa, lordy!

GORDON: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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