Obama plan: no real immigrant ‘reforms’

Jan. 2013 Immigration

By LISA LUINENBURG

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that President Obama is planning a major push for Comprehensive Immigration Reform in early 2013. Early reports state that the proposed bill would likely include provisions for increased border militarization, more employer sanctions (which could include increased use of programs like E-verify), and special work visas for employers seeking to hire immigrant workers (Bracero-like guest worker visas). The push to pass a new immigration reform bill could come as soon as late January or early February, with a media blitz being planned for the month of January.

A new immigration policy is desperately needed. Far from being “broken,” as many claim, the U.S. immigration system has been designed to maintain a structure of super-exploitation of undocumented workers, who maintain our economic system by working the most difficult jobs for poverty wages. These workers have basically no rights, and are kept so fearful of deportation that they seldom report workplace abuses or lost wages, or organize themselves to fight for their rights or join unions.

The increasing use of programs like E-verify, which checks the immigration status of people applying for certain jobs, has forced more immigrants to work under the table, increasing the potential for employer abuses and driving down wages for all workers. At the same time, thousands of immigrant workers have been fired from their jobs after I-9 audits have revealed their immigration status, punishing workers for breaches of the law committed by employers.

Furthermore, increasing militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border has led to more deaths when immigrants attempt to cross the border, and the widespread use of federal programs like Secure Communities (a biometric database used to check the immigration status of people booked into jail) has led to record numbers of deportations and an increase in racial-profiling abuses committed by police. In fact, Obama has once again beaten his own record, deporting 409,849 immigrants in 2012, about 10,000 more than in the previous year.

This system has caused untold suffering for the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. It has ripped apart families and communities, and perpetuated a social and economic structure based on xenophobia and the criminalization of workers and human beings. It has denied millions of immigrants their basic rights, as well as access to services and a stable place in society. It has created a second-class status, with undocumented immigrants as “less-thans” in all senses of the words.

And yet it is clear that the Comprehensive Immigration Reform proposals that are likely to come out of the White House will not be aimed at ameliorating the terrible situation that millions of undocumented immigrants face every day, but rather at perpetuating and legalizing this system of super-exploitation.

The White House website (www.whitehouse.gov) has already laid out a framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, which includes: (1) continuing and augmenting the militarization of the borders; (2) the use of more employer sanctions and employment verification programs like E-verify; (3) increasing the use of guest worker programs that tie immigrant visas to employers; (4) and stringent requirements that undocumented immigrants to undergo criminal background checks, pay fines and taxes, and learn English before applying for citizenship.

If we look back at the two Comprehensive Immigration Reform proposals that were introduced in 2009-2010, we can get a pretty clear idea of what proposals might look like in 2013. The CIR ASAP Act, introduced by Representative Carlos Gutierrez (D-Il.), although making a few small positive changes to the U.S. immigration system, contained proposals for increased border militarization and the mandated use of E-Verify by all employers, and continued the system of the criminalization and deportation of undocumented workers. It also contained provisions for agricultural guest worker visas and visas for undocumented youth contingent on military service or expensive college courses.

The “pathway to citizenship” it laid out, far from the immediate legalization being demanded by the immigrant community, was an arduous process that would have taken over six years. The REPAIR act, introduced by Senators Reid, Menendez, Leahy, Feinstein, and Durbin, and supported by President Obama, was also introduced in 2010. The REPAIR act contained similar provisions to the Gutierrez bill, but was heavy on enforcement and would have created a biometric ID card that would be issued to everyone in the United States.

The “pathway to citizenship” laid out in this bill would have taken over eight years, during which time immigrants would have to live under an uncertain temporary status. Clearly, these bills were designed to perpetuate the current immigration system based on the control and exploitation of undocumented workers.

Despite the fact that the Gutierrez and REPAIR proposals were widely touted by the Democratic Party and unions such as the SEIU and the AFL-CIO in 2010, they failed to make any headway in the halls of Congress. Much of the grassroots energy in the immigrant rights movement around legalization and Comprehensive Immigration Reform was co-opted by Reform Immigration for America (RIFA), a non-profit organization controlled by the Democratic Party. Although RIFA organized a massive demonstration in Washington, D.C. of 200,000 people in March of 2010, the rally was dominated by the voices of Democratic Party officials. There was little room left in the debate for alternative points of view, despite efforts by groups like the Grassroots Immigrant Justice Network to attempt to circulate a proposal for legalization that was based on justice and fairness, and an immediate legalization for all undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

When the new Comprehensive Immigration Reform legislation is introduced in 2013, Senior White House advisors are expected to turn to the same organizations and unions that helped them get record numbers of Latino voters to reelect President Obama in November.

In June of 2012, the Obama administration announced a new Deferred Action policy that provided a two-year protection from deportation, a work visa, and a driver’s license to certain undocumented youth. However, this policy did not offer any path to citizenship for young immigrants, and required them to pass rigorous background checks, pay fines, be enrolled in school or a GED program, and provide documentation of their time in the U.S. before they could apply for the new status. Despite gaining wide approval from many immigrant rights organizations and an initial high level of interest in the immigrant community, so far only about 350,000 out of a potential 1.7 million qualified youth have applied and qualified for the status.

In the end, the Deferred Action policy offered little guarantee for undocumented youth and was widely recognized as a ploy to gain Latino votes during the November presidential elections. In fact, over 70% of Latinos and Asians voted for Obama in the November elections, hoping beyond hope that he would provide some way for the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States to become legalized. Unfortunately, with the immigrant rights movement at low ebb, many people saw few other options for change except through the electoral system.

It already seems that major unions will once again wholeheartedly back Obama’s attempt at immigration reform this time around. Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, recently issued a statement on immigration reform, thanking “the resounding number of Latino voters … who turned out in huge numbers for President Obama.” He emphasized that immigration reform must provide a “roadmap to citizenship for all workers,” and provide protections for day laborers and other exploited workers while upholding “immigration laws that protect, not oppress us.”

Despite the vague language, it seems likely that the AFL-CIO and other major unions will get behind whatever Comprehensive Immigration Reform proposal comes out of the White House, even though it contains provisions for border security measures, E-verify, and guest worker visas. This was the same strategy they took in 2010.

Despite all the rhetoric that is already beginning to swirl around Comprehensive Immigration Reform, undocumented immigrants deserve much more than what is currently being offered to them:  an arduous path to citizenship while the government continues to deport people they label as “criminals” and lock down the borders, while giving a boon to employers.

A truly just immigration system would include an immediate legalization for all undocumented immigrants, an end to the criminalization of immigrant workers and the use of guest worker programs, an end to the militarization of all borders and all raids and deportations, an end to enforcement programs like E-Verify and Secure Communities, an end to NAFTA and other economic policies that force people to migrate, and equal rights (both human rights and worker rights) for all immigrants, regardless of their status.

Undocumented immigrants have strength in numbers, and they have shown how they can use that strength when their rights are threatened, pouring into the streets in the thousands in response to reactionary legislation like the Sensenbrenner bill and SB 1070. With Comprehensive Immigration Reform once again on the horizon, now is the time to utilize that strength once again.

Now is the time for foreign-born workers to join forces with U.S. born workers; for immigrant families to join forces with African American and white families; for Immigrant Rights organizations to join forces with faith-based and labor organizations to push for something better than what we are being offered by the powers that be. We are the 99% and we can achieve a better kind of “immigration reform,” one that serves to uphold the rights of all undocumented immigrants.

Now is the time to add our voices to the debate in preparation for the Comprehensive Immigration Reform push that will soon be coming from the White House and the likely reactionary pushback from the Republicans. If we want true legalization for all to become a reality, now is the time to start organizing in immigrant and allied communities across the country! ¡Adelante compañer@s!

Photo from Philebrity blog