Open Letter on Immigrant Rights

To: The Obama Administration
An Open Letter

This letter was initiated by the Grassroots Immigrant Justice Network, a group which was recently formed by leaders in the immigrant rights and labor movements across the country. Initial members include Isabel Garcia, David Silva Villalobos, Carlos Arango, Juan Jose Bocanegra, Nativo Lopez, David Bacon, Lisa Luinenburg, Cristobal Cavazos, John Steinbach, Daniela Ortiz-Bahamonde, George Shriver, Jason McGahan, and Domingo Gonzales.

Although the political climate seems uncertain, we are proposing a different approach to discussing Comprehensive Immigration Reform. We need to generate a national debate based on immigration as a labor mobility and human rights issue, not as an issue of national security and enforcement. Immigrants have made vast contributions to the U.S., and they should be granted the right to live here legally and without fear. We should recognize migration as the global phenomenon it is and address the root economic causes of migration.

The principles guiding the national debate around immigration reform should consist of:

1. Build bridges between the peoples of the U.S. and Mexico instead of walls that segregate them and turn them into competitors in a struggle for survival. Take immediate action to stop the deaths along the border and end border militarization.

2. Analyze the effects of free trade agreements like NAFTA on the economies of “sender” countries. End all economic and foreign policies that leave people in “sender” countries with no choice but to migrate in order to support their families.

3. Provide a clear and easy legalization program for the millions of undocumented immigrants who have built their homes here and contributed greatly to the prosperity of the U.S. economy. All immigrants deserve the full rights accorded to U.S. citizens, not a second-class status.

4. Clear the backlogs of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have been waiting to legalize their status since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Allow more families to reunite with their loved ones by expanding the definition of “family” under current immigration law.

5. Bracero-style guest worker programs and other forms of labor exploitation should be eliminated, and the labor system made to benefit workers and their families, not corporations and agribusiness. Increased labor protections for immigrant workers should also include the freedom of movement between jobs and across national borders.

6. End the criminalization of work through the use of 1-9 audits, E-verify, “silent raids,” and other tactics used to carry out mass firings of workers. All workers, immigrants included, have the right to work and seek work without the fear of retaliation.

7. Immigrants and their families have the right to live in their communities without fear. Stop the raids and deportations, end ‘enforcement first’ policies like 287(g) and Secure Communities, eliminate the privatization of the detention system, and decriminalize the status of undocumented workers. Extend equal rights to all by ratifying the International Convention on the Protection of Migrant Workers.

Many people in the immigrant community look with hope towards the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 (CIR ASAP), recently introduced by Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL). The bill does make some positive and much-needed changes to the immigration system, including the suspension of 287(g) and Operation Streamline and improvements in the detention system, and the elimination of all bars related to undocumented status (although security and criminal bars cannot be waived). However, it fails to change the basic ‘enforcement first’ structure of the U.S. immigration system. The bill also falls far short of meeting the just demands raised by the grassroots immigrant rights movement, including an end to the raids and deportations and the militarization of the border, increased protections for immigrant workers, and a fair legalization for all.

Below is a list of concerns being raised by immigrant rights organizations and leaders across the country:

1. On Border Security: The bill increases militarization of the border, guaranteeing the continued deaths of thousands of desperate workers instead of addressing the root causes that fuel immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border. Although 287(g) and Operation Streamline will be suspended, the bill increases collaboration between police and ICE agents along the border.

2. On the Immigrant Detention System: The bill fails to ban the privatization of the detention system, which has led to an increasing number of human rights abuses at the hands of for-profit, non-transparent corporations. Although some improvements are made to conditions in detention centers, immigrants will continue to be criminalized under the current system of enforcement.

3. On Enforcement Activities: While providing a few protections for vulnerable populations picked up in raids, the bill does not guarantee due process procedures for those being deported. At the same time, while in theory suspending the 287(g) program, or polimigra, the bill also seeks to accelerate (at least in border areas) the process of integrating local and state law enforcement agents into the detention and deportation of immigrant workers.

4. On Employment Verification: The proposal mandates the use of the Employment Verification (E-Verify) system by all employers within three years. It also requires employers to fire workers whose social security numbers don’t match Social Security Administration databases. This results in the criminalization of immigrant workers and gives employers another tool to break unions and degrade workers’ rights across the board.

5. On Family Unity: Although increasing the numbers of family visas available and giving the government greater discretion to waive unlawful presence bars to family reunification, the proposal keeps in place the 1996 law that requires the undocumented to leave the U.S. for 3-10 years in order to become eligible to legalize their status. This law has resulted in unnecessary family separation and immense suffering.

6. On Legalization: The bill will not grant a fair and fast path for the millions of undocumented immigrants who deserve a chance to legalize their status quickly and affordably. Instead, the bill creates a new conditional non-immigrant status (CNIS) visa. Those with CNIS status could apply for legal permanent resident (LPR) status, but no Green Cards would be issued for 6 years after the proposal’s enactment (unless existing immigrant backlogs have been cleared). The path to citizenship would likely take many more years.

7. On Agricultural Jobs: The Gutierrez bill includes the AgJOBS Act of 2009, which would provide temporary “blue card” visas to undocumented farm workers who have been living in the United States. In the past, temporary visa programs like the infamous Bracero program have been rife with abuse, benefiting growing companies and not workers.

8. On Students: The Gutierrez bill also includes the DREAM Act, which aims to offer in-state tuition rates to the children of undocumented immigrants. But it conditions the college loans and grants that these young people need on a type of ‘community service’ which includes military service. This is unacceptable.

9. On Future Flows of Immigrants: The bill creates a Commission on Immigration and Labor Markets to determine the future quotas of temporary legal immigration visas. Any changes in immigration and labor policies will be based on the report of that commission. The establishment of this commission is the first step towards setting up an expanded guest worker program.

Immigrants have fought for justice for many years, and in 2006 they reminded our legislators and politicians just how strong and intelligent their voices are. Now is the time to engage with our communities in honest dialogue and continue to hold our elected officials accountable to the vision of justice coming from the immigrant communities that make up our nation. We shall overcome! ¡Vencerémos!

*To sign and support this open letter, check out the Grassroots Immigrant Justice Network.

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