Two major policy changes affecting undocumented immigrants and the struggle for immigrant rights have recently been announced.
First, in a clear bid for Latino votes as the November presidential election approaches, President Obama announced on June 15 that the Department of Homeland Security will stop deporting certain “low priority” undocumented youth and will create a temporary protective status that could benefit over a million young immigrants. Secondly, the U.S. Supreme Court finally handed down its decision on SB 1070, ultimately upholding one of the most controversial provisions of the anti-immigrant Arizona law, known as the “show me your papers” provision.
Obama’s recent announcement that ICE would stop deporting undocumented youth came after several DREAMers (young undocumented activists organizing in support of the DREAM Act) occupied his Denver campaign offices for several days to pressure him to issue an executive order to stop deporting undocumented students. Obama’s announcement comes at a critical time in his presidential campaign, and this latest immigration policy change is clearly aimed at gaining the support of Latino voters.
These new guidelines, known as the “deferred action” policy, may help up to an estimated 800,000 to 1.4 million undocumented youth currently living in the U.S. Young people who qualify for deferred action will be given temporary protection from deportation, a work permit, and a driver’s license. This temporary status would last for two years, after which it would supposedly be renewable.
To qualify for the new policy, undocumented youth must have arrived in the United States before the age of 16 and currently be under the age of 30 (and must be at least 15 years old to apply); have lived in the U.S. for five continuous years leading up to the June 15 announcement; currently be in school, have graduated from high school, obtained a GED, or have been honorably discharged from the U.S. military; and must not have been convicted of a range of offenses, including a felony, a significant misdemeanor, multiple misdemeanors, or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.
Many will be barred because of the restrictive requirements. According to the PEW Hispanic Center, high school dropout rates for foreign-born Latino students are above 50%, and only 5% of those dropouts have a GED. Immigrant youth applying for deferred status must collect extensive documentation to prove they meet all these different requirements, and on top of that must pay a $500 fee to the government, along with an additional $1,000-$4,000 if they use the services of an immigration lawyer.
While many immigrant rights activists are hailing the deferred action announcement as a historic victory, some immigrant youth remain unsure. “The thing that sits badly with us is DHS cannot provide any assurance of relief and is going to do everything on a case by case basis,” stated Mohammad Abdollahi of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance in an interview with Colorlines.
Many immigrant youth are rightfully wary of promises from the Obama administration in light of record deportations (close to 400,000 a year under Obama) and a disappointing result after the DHS announced last year that they would be reviewing deportation cases and removing those of “low priority.” This review resulted in only 4363 out nearly 300,000 cases being dropped.
Obama’s policy change is not part of a new law or even an executive order—it is simply a change announced by the president and overseen by the Department of Homeland Security and ICE. As such, it could be reversed at any time.
Worst of all, the Obama administration has made it very clear that deferred action status is no more than a temporary fix. “This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship,” announced Obama. “It’s not a permanent fix. This is a temporary stop gap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief to talented, driven, patriotic young people.”
In short, deferred action is nothing more than a temporary, second-class status that offers undocumented youth a permit to work but no way to obtain residency or citizenship or help their parents or other family members get the same. This temporary status will protect them from deportation, but there is no guarantee that they will be able to receive work benefits, adequate pay, or the right to organize or participate in unions.
This type of second-class status is similar to that included in previous comprehensive immigration reform proposals, which all included increasing dependence on work visas. The United States economy is heavily dependent on cheap, exploitable immigrant labor, and guest-worker programs (for example, the post-World War II Bracero program) have long been notorious for low wages, poor working conditions, and union busting.
In this light, some DREAMers have promised to keep the pressure on Obama high in the coming months. Said Abdollahi of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, “We know Obama needs the Latino vote, but until he stops our deportations, we’re going to keep pushing.”
Court rules on Arizona law
The Obama administration’s recent announcement on the deferred action policy was closely followed by a historic Supreme Court ruling on Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 legislation, which was challenged in court on grounds that it was unconstitutional for states to implement immigration laws that conflicted with federal immigration policy (the law was not challenged on grounds that it would violate civil liberties).
In its ruling, handed down on June 25, the Supreme Court struck down three provisions of SB 1070 that would have (1) made it a crime for an undocumented person to be in Arizona; (2) made it a crime for an undocumented immigrant to seek work: (3) allowed police to make warrantless arrests of anyone they had probable cause to believe had committed a deportable offense.
However, the Supreme Court let stand one of the most notorious sections of the law, section 2(B), known as “show me your papers”—a provision that requires law-enforcement agents to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop as long as they have “reasonable suspicion” that the person is an undocumented immigrant. The court also let stand another little-known provision allowing individual taxpayers the right to sue law-enforcement agencies if they suspect them of not rigorously enforcing the law.
The ruling prompted groups on both sides of the debate to claim a partial victory, despite the fact that section 2(B) will allow police officers across Arizona to continue to engage in racial profiling and discrimination on a daily basis. Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio is already well known for his racial profiling and abuse of civil rights in Maricopa County.
In a letter issued to the Department of Homeland Security, almost 100 civil rights groups wrote, “We write to you today as civil rights leaders in Arizona to tell you that we are afraid of what is coming. We are afraid that the color of our skin will make us targets for harassment, perpetual arrest, and limitless detention.” The ACLU is already preparing to register complaints arising from abuse of the law.
In a bid from the Obama administration to mitigate the significance of the Supreme Court ruling, Attorney General Eric Holder immediately announced that the provision “is not a license to engage in racial profiling.” The Department of Homeland Security then announced that it plans to suspend the 287(g) program throughout Arizona. 287(g) is a notorious ICE program that deputizes local police to act as immigration agents.
However, it soon became clear that the federal government is only ending a small portion of 287(g), which authorizes police to ask people on the street about their immigration status. And 287(g) programs operating inside local jails, where most immigration enforcement occurs, will be left in place, along with Secure Communities, an even more extensive program that uses databases of biometric information (like fingerprints) to check the immigration status of people who are booked into jail, regardless of whether they have actually committed a crime or not.
Both 287(g) and Secure Communities have already come under fire from civil and immigrant rights groups for abuse and racial profiling, and Secure Communities is on track to be implemented nationwide by 2013, a goal promoted by the Obama administration.
It was the federal government’s complicity in programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities that led the Supreme Court to their decision to leave SB 1070’s “show me your papers” provision intact. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, stated, “The status checks [do] not interfere with the federal immigration scheme. Consultation between federal and state officials is an important feature of the immigration system.
Congress has made clear that no formal agreement or special training needs to be in place for state officers to ‘communicate with the [federal government] regarding the immigration status of any individual, including reporting knowledge that a particular alien is not lawfully present in the United States.’”
ICE programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities are the reason that despite Obama’s paying lip service to demands to stop deportations in the immigrant community, the annual number of deportations under his administration continues to rise. The Supreme Court’s decision on SB 1070 also opens the door for other states to pursue similar harsh anti-immigrant policies and validates similar laws that have already been passed in states like Utah, Indiana, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.
In the meantime, immigrant rights groups will continue to pressure the federal government not to collaborate with Arizona law-enforcement efforts, while at the same time demanding that the Department of Homeland Security suspend the operation of Secure Communities as well as terminate all 287(g) agreements still standing in Arizona.
The only thing that emerges clearly from all the new developments on the immigrant rights front is that while Obama announces immigration policy changes to pander to the Latino vote, thousands of families are being ripped apart while their loved ones await deportation; thousands of undocumented workers are exploited on a daily basis because they have no rights to organize in their workplaces; thousands of people of color are discriminated against daily by police solely because of the color of their skin.
In the end, actions must speak louder than words. There can be no solution to the immigration crisis unless immigrants rise up and show their collective power like they did on May Day 2006.
> The article above was written by Lisa Luinenberg, and is reprinted from the July 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.