Democrats play ‘soft cop’ on immigration reforms

Democrats play ‘soft cop’ on immigration reforms
From the April issue of Socialist Action newspaper

By MARC ROME and JAMES FRICKEY

When Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano recently called off a raid on 100 immigrant workers in a Chicago factory, her move was hailed as a significant shift away from the anti-immigrant repression of the Bush years. Less attention, however, was given to her directive that immigration agents take greater care in selecting the “targets” and the timing of their raids.

Napolitano also pledged to outdo the Bush administration in prosecuting employers who hire undocumented workers. The Los Angeles Times got the message loud and clear: “Homeland Security officials emphasized that the department would not stop conducting sweeps of businesses while more structural changes to U.S. immigration law and policy were being contemplated.”

The Migration Policy Institute, a think-tank in Washington that advises Napolitano, likewise criticized the Bush administration for talking tough about employer sanctions but rarely following through. Napolitano and her advisers criticize the large-scale workplace raids of the late Bush years as ineffective at enforcing immigration policy. They argue instead for a new electronic system that would give the federal government a bird’s-eye view of hiring practices and enable it to keep records on immigrant workers.

Homeland Security under Obama has promised to target the employers of “illegal” workers, by which it means to give the impression that it won’t target workers themselves. But employer sanctions invariably target workers and let the employers off with a slap on the wrist.

The factory owners who were supposedly the targets of a massive New Bedford, Mass., raid in 2007 posted bond the day after their arraignment and were reportedly on a beach in Puerto Rico within 24 hours of their arrest. They later paid a fine and served no jail time. Their workers, meanwhile, were imprisoned in an abandoned military base in Massachusetts, flown overnight to a prison in Texas, barred from communicating with lawyers and emergency child-care providers, and quickly deported.

Democrats connive with the employers
The Democrats make “employer sanctions” sound almost pro-immigrant, when in fact they are associated with the most egregious roundups of workers.

The Democrats in power are making careful preparations to ensure that industries dependent on immigrant labor will continue to have access to workers with the least amount of rights—almost a necessity to turn a profit in this recession. Today, they play soft cop. But they can resort to playing hard cop again, and can do so more forcefully and completely with increased ICE agents and a more highly policed U.S.-Mexico border than at any time except during the Mexican-American War.

The Obama administration has asked Congress to authorize $390 million for hiring 1600 new border-patrol agents and 350 agents of Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) to police the interior. Obama is honoring the Bush administration’s policy goal, set in 2004, to hire 10,000 additional border agents by next year, increasing the total from 11,000 agents to 21,000.

The U.S. government’s increased border militarization and past record of massive workplace raids—including the roundups of 1300 workers at six Swift meatpacking plants in 2006, 355 arrests at a factory in New Bedford, Mass., in 2007, and 350 more in a meatpacking raid last year in Postville, Iowa—point to its increasing capacity to carry off a mass deportation.

In fact, Homeland Security has spelled out the scale of its ambitions in its “Operation: Endgame,” a plan for rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants that would be the most massive police operation in U.S. history. Already, 1.1 million immigrants are in deportation proceedings, and more than 400,000 are detained each year.

Meanwhile, Democrats have declined to take the option of more raids completely off the table; it provides leverage to play to the fear and uncertainty in the immigrant communities, as they promote new immigration reform as a kind of cure-all.

Luis Gutierrez, a congressman from Chicago, has been particularly active and effective in this regard. Gutierrez recently wrapped up a 17-city tour during which he spoke to mass meetings of hundreds and, in some cases, even thousands of mostly Latino immigrant workers. Gutierrez, and other Democratic Party leaders, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have spoken against workplace raids and in favor of a reform whose terms they are careful not to specify.

Marc Rome attended a meeting of over 600 Latino immigrant men and women in San Francisco in which Gutierrez was joined onstage by Pelosi, both of whom made speeches as if they were friends of immigrant workers and their allies in stopping the raids. They even repeatedly shouted, “End the raids!” to thunderous applause.

Democrats are seeking to placate the Catholic Church and AFL-CIO with vague promises that coming immigration legislation would be “fair and compassionate” and include compromises. While the raids may have temporarily been called off, a proposal for future legislation suggests only modifications in how they’re carried out.

Senator John Kerry had already let the cat out of the bag in his article entitled, “Toward Humane Immigration Enforcement.” He writes that “the raid at Michael Bianco [in New Bedford] prompted me to introduce the Families First Immigration Enforcement Act. I saw it as a way to stop other communities from experiencing the same kind of soul-wrenching event that had occurred in New Bedford. It included common-sense ideas, such as coordinating with state agencies to provide interpreters and social services and establishing humanitarian exceptions for the sick, elderly, pregnant or nursing mothers and others especially vulnerable to the consequences of detention.”

“President Obama,” Kerry continues, “has reaffirmed his commitment to push for immigration reform along the lines of the measure originally proposed by Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain with a renewed emphasis on the employer side—rather than the employee side—of workplace enforcement.”

Any legislation along the lines proposed by Kerry hardly deserves to be called “humane.” The Kennedy/McCain bill called for a major increase in the number of ICE agents, a 700-mile border wall, and a path to citizenship that would have required five to 12 years residency in the U.S., passing a criminal background check, and paying thousands of dollars in back taxes and fines.

Past reform proposals from the Democrats have met with approval from the business lobby that represents the largest employers of immigrant labor. Major U.S. corporations like Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods, and Aramark have taken a particular interest in the provision for a guest-worker program to import millions of super-exploited foreign workers into the U.S. market without legal rights, whose work permits may be renewed or revoked at their employers’ discretion.

A “sea change” by the unions?
The main labor federation in the U.S., the AFL-CIO, has referred to the recent moves by the Obama administration as a “sea-change” which suggests the Democrats will introduce a reform bill which the unions can support.

Ana Avendaño, the immigration director for the AFL-CIO, enthused to the L.A. Times that “The reality is that we no longer have corporations controlling public policy in the White House and on the Hill.” Is Avendaño simply being diplomatic or does her new note of optimism mean that the AFL-CIO has changed its tune on immigration reform? The federation held the line in 2006 and 2008 while most of the unions in the break-away labor federation, Change to Win, crossed over and fought for the Democrats and their reform, which included a massive guest-worker program.

It has long been suspected that the Change to Win unions—most notably the Service Employees International Union—don’t protest a massive new guest-worker program because the Democrats have promised to allow them to “organize” the guest-worker force, and in turn, allow them to collect dues from tens of thousands of 21st-century Braceros.

It is too early yet to tell what concessions the Democrats are dangling before the AFL-CIO, and on what terms the AFL-CIO may be continuing to demand more concessions. What is clear, however, is that the Obama administration is courting labor in a determined way to join its corporate backers in pushing through an immigration reform, perhaps as early as the fall.

Meanwhile, corporate lobbyists and prominent non-profit organizations, like the National Immigration Forum, are strengthening their push to win over the masses of immigrants and organized labor with an $18-million media and grassroots campaign for the fall. Their funding comes mostly from liberal foundations, including one founded by billionaire activist George Soros.

Their new proposal, the Los Angeles Times reports, would create an “independent” commission, which would set a quota for the number of foreign workers allowed into the country in a given year. “The system, designed by Ray Marshall, a Labor secretary under President Carter, would replace [with a vast guest-worker system] a maze of special temporary worker visas that are granted each year to high-tech specialists, agriculture workers and other foreigners brought into the U.S. by foreign and domestic firms.”

President Obama has told members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that he’s willing to push for a comprehensive immigration overhaul during the first year of his presidency, according to The Wall Street Journal. A final bill, however, will likely entail a long and contentious debate, as competing sectors of U.S. capital clash over their different needs and interests in the short-term versus long-term.

Even during times of economic downturn, industries that depend heavily on immigrant labor will advocate for continued access to cheap, compliant labor, and they’ll go up against sections of the ruling class who will decry the cost of allowing immigrants into the country. To reconcile any differences, a compromise may be sought that allows in a limited number of guest workers and at the same time ensures more tightly controlled/militarized borders, increased ICE policing, etc.

The downward pull that such a program would have on the democratic rights, especially the right to organize or join a union, of “native workers,” not to mention on their social and economic position, cannot be underestimated. Thus, those workers have every reason to be opposed.

For the Democratic leaders to defend the long-term interests that they serve, they’ll have to win firm support from key groups like the AFL-CIO and Catholic Church. As a show of goodwill to this end, they have instructed the Homeland Security chief to publicly (and vaguely) criticize the raids and repression of the late Bush years.

This may indicate a tactical shift away from the large-scale workplace and neighborhood raids for now, but undoubtedly for only a limited time and with the full understanding that the raids remain an integral means for keeping immigrant workers from mobilizing to defend themselves against an ICE terror campaign.

To the extent that large, politically charged raids occur, they will likely be given an anti-crime or anti-terrorist pretext that would make them more politically defensible—deporting undocumented Mexican gang members from San Quentin, for example, or militarizing the border to “protect” against Mexican drug lords.

A new Democratic president and firmer Democratic control over the House and Senate have given that party new confidence in the viability of its program for immigration reform, as spelled out in the Kennedy-McCain bill. It remains to be seen to what extent a shift away from the broader counter-insurgency-type policy against undocumented workers is taking place.

Democrats assess that the raids have succeeded in weakening the resolve of immigrant workers to mobilize in large numbers. They fear that workers who engage in mass protests could introduce working-class political demands and broaden the narrow terms of the “official” public debate.

May 1 marches and rallies are planned for San Francisco, Minneapolis, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City, Oakland, Chicago, San Jose, Salt Lake City, Miami, Tampa, and elsewhere. These events will provide an opportunity for immigration-rights activists to remobilize around a clear program of demands that match the aspirations of the immigrant workers and their allies: “Stop the Raids and Deportations!” “Legalization and Amnesty for All!” “No Guest Worker Program!”