Immigrants need legalization without chains

By LISA LUINENBURG

Millions of undocumented immigrants and their families, friends, and allies waited with bated breath for the unveiling of the new proposal for Comprehensive Immigration Reform on Tuesday, April 16. Despite high hopes, the new bill includes many draconian provisions, such as more militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, new guest-worker programs and biometric employment verification, and a long, arduous, and expensive “pathway to citizenship.”

One of the main sections of the bill includes a massive increase in the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and the criminalization of immigrants. The proposal earmarks $4.5 billion to be spent on the use of new surveillance technologies developed by the Department of Defense, more Border Patrol agents, the use of drones to patrol the border, the installment of new double and triple-layer fences, and the deployment of the National Guard to support all this new infrastructure.

Other provisions include $50 million dollars to allow Operation Streamline in Tucson, Ariz., to process 210 detainees per day for deportation (up from 70 per day), installing more checkpoints along the border, and granting Homeland Security officials access to all federally protected lands. But the worst part of all this is that militarization benchmarks and an expanded, mandatory E-Verify system must be implemented and met before the government grants legal status to anyone. This basically allows the government to delay the legalization process as long as they want.

Increasing the security and violence along the border would not stop immigrants from crossing; as in the past, it would only push people to cross at more dangerous points, leading to more deaths. It is estimated by the Immigration Policy Center that the number of migrants’ bodies found along the border have increased from 14 per year in 1995 to over 160 per year in 2005—a direct result of increasing militarization.

Politically, the militarization strategy has a purpose too. It is a trade-off; the government gives the most conservative elements what they want, and they put their stamp of approval on the bill. In this way the government is also able to sway public opinion—they can make it appear that they are “cracking down” on immigration, without actually stopping the flow of undocumented labor that the economy depends on.

It’s all part of a strategy known as “attrition through enforcement.” The idea is to make life so unbearable for undocumented immigrants and their families that they’re too afraid to take to the streets, to utilize their class power to fight back and demand their rights. This allows ideas like national security, cultural integrity, and criminalization—the backbone of the U.S. immigration system—to flourish.

And who profits from all this? Not surprisingly, it’s the big military defense contractors. Even Charles Schumer, one of the main authors of the new reform bill, would get his cut. He has recently been criticized for taking over $100,000 dollars in campaign contributions from GEO and the Corrections Corporation of America—two of the biggest private prison corporations who make millions of dollars in profits ($296.9 million in combined profits in 2012) from housing immigrants awaiting deportation in sub-par detention centers.

Along with all of the border security measures, the new reform bill also makes the E-Verify employment verification system mandatory for all employers within five years. E-Verify is a database that allows employers to check the immigration status of workers when they apply for a job. Right now, its use is only required for certain companies with government contracts. But the new proposal would make the system nationwide and would require all workers, citizens and non-citizens alike, to show biometric ID cards (cards that contain personal identifying information like photos or fingerprints) when applying for a job.

This is just the first step in government systems being put in place to track all people living within the United States. And because not all undocumented immigrants would qualify for the new status and many more would continue to cross into the United States, the expanded E-Verify system would force workers without papers into an even more precarious existence as they are driven farther underground—working for unscrupulous employers outside the system who have no problem abusing workers and paying super-low wages. Immigrants trapped in this situation would have almost no recourse when their rights are violated.

So what exactly would immigrants get when they are finally able to adjust their status? Instead of granting the fast, fair, and unconditional legalization that the immigrant community has demanded for so long, the new proposal sets up an arduous and expensive legalization process that will take over 13 years. In order to qualify for the new “Registered Provisional Immigrant” status, immigrants would have to prove that they’ve lived in the U.S. continuously since Dec. 31, 2011, and pay a $500 fine, back taxes, and undefined “application fees.” Immigrants who have been convicted of certain crimes or who are deemed a “threat” to national security will be disqualified.

The RPI status would last for six years, after which it could be renewed (along with another $500 fee). After living in limbo for 10 years, immigrants with RPI status would be able apply for a green card, but only after paying another $1000 fine, and demonstrating continuous physical presence, work history, and knowledge of civics and English. No one would receive a green card until all the existing backlogs are cleared (some people have been waiting decades for their family reunification visas) and after that, the process to apply for citizenship would take several more years. The fact that most immigrants would have to hire a lawyer to help them navigate all the paperwork would jack up the cost several thousands of dollars more, making the entire process a nightmare of paperwork, long lines, and punitive fees.

The new RPI status would essentially be a second-class status, uncertain at best. While immigrants who have it would be protected from deportation and allowed to work and to travel outside the U.S., they would be forced to live for years without the basic rights accorded to U.S. citizens. Immigrants with RPI status would be barred from accessing any government benefits like food stamps, WIC, or other assistance programs. And although spouses and parents of U.S. citizens, immigrants currently in the deportation process, and some immigrants who have already been deported would be allowed to apply, the bill makes no provision for the partners of LGBTQ people—an injustice already being decried by the LGBTQ community.

While undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. are navigating the new citizenship process, the government and big business have arranged a process for bringing in new immigrant workers under a system of legalized exploitation. Under the new system, certain types of family visas (for example, visas for siblings of U.S. citizens) would be eliminated, along with the Diversity Visa, under which many Africans have immigrated to the U.S.

In their place, the government would implement a new merit-based visa system, in which immigrants would be awarded “points” for their education level, type of employment, and length of time living in the United States. Those with the most points would “win” the visas—guaranteeing that visas would go to immigrants with high-level educations and well-paying jobs, while the poorest workers are once again left out in the cold. The government would also increase the number of H-1B visas, which go to highly skilled immigrants (such as doctors, scientists, corporate managers, and technology-based workers), to 40% of the total.

At the same time, the bill would create the “W-Visa,” a new type of guest-worker visa for low-skilled immigrants who work in industries like meatpacking, textiles, or construction. A specially appointed committee would determine visa caps through complex economic formulas (guaranteeing, of course, that industries are supplied with the low-wage labor they need to keep prices low and profits high). Workers under the W-Visa could come to the U.S. for up to three years on work visas tied to a specific employer and a specific job. And although workers would be guaranteed certain rights under the law (for example, the right to change jobs, and protections from employer abuses), it is important to remember that those very same rights were guaranteed under the original Bracero Program.

The Bracero Program, which imported immigrant workers to supply the agricultural system with low-wage labor in the 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s, was notorious for terrible working conditions, super-low wages, exploitation, and abuse. And when the workers were no longer needed, the government deported over a million immigrants. The immigration reform proposal also includes the AgJOBS bill, which gives some undocumented agricultural workers a chance at citizenship, while creating two new types of agricultural guest worker visas.

Guest worker programs since the Bracero age have been little better in terms of worker abuse. So what’s the incentive to change this time around? It all comes down to economics in the end. The U.S. economy remains heavily dependent on the low-wage labor of a super-exploited class of workers—undocumented immigrants who have no rights and who are kept too afraid to fight back. The new immigration reform bill simply serves to legalize that system of economic exploitation, guaranteeing super-profits for agricultural, industrial, and meatpacking giants.

However, the bill does nothing to address the reasons that immigrants are forced to come to the U.S., including poverty and war (often created by U.S. interventions, or economic policies such as NAFTA). Undocumented immigrants who come into the U.S. after the new bill is implemented would be forced to live and work even farther outside of the more tightly-controlled wage system, making them more vulnerable to exploitation and repression and leaving them less recourse to fight back. At the same time, the private prison industry would also be guaranteed super-profits as immigrants continue to be detained and deported at ever-higher rates.

This entire infrastructure has received explicit union approval from the AFL-CIO and SEIU. Like the bill itself, these unions are pitting “good” immigrants against “bad” immigrants, as if some were more deserving of legalization than others. For example, the SEIU states on its website that it supports “earned legalization with a pathway to citizenship” so undocumented immigrants can “get right with the law.”

Both of the big, bureaucratic unions also back border security, worker authorization, and the new guest-worker programs. Have they forgotten the thousands of immigrant workers who were fired in 1-9 audits? What about the military-style raids in Postville or at the Swift plants? Unfortunately, it appears that many big unions are so beholden to the Democratic Party that they are urging their rank-and-file members to support this immigration “reform.”

But immigrants, indeed all workers, deserve better than this proposal we are being offered by those in power! Immigrants deserve legalization without chains—a legalization that allows them to reunite broken families, to live in their communities without fear, to work with dignity, to join unions and defend their rights.

Immigrants deserve a legalization that is not tied to militarization of the border, that doesn’t force them to trade the deaths and detentions of their brothers and sisters for a chance at a green card. They deserve a legalization that doesn’t force them to wait in line for decades, that doesn’t force them to trade their labor so big corporations can make millions of dollars in profits while they struggle to send money to their families back home.

We all deserve to live in a world without borders—where we are free to move or stay as we wish, where we can be with our loved ones—no matter what their legal status or their sexual orientation, where we can work with dignity for a living wage.

This can only be achieved through the unity of the working class. We must not fall victim to the false ideas we are fed every day by corporate media—that undocumented workers are criminals, that they are here to steal “American” jobs, that some immigrants are somehow more deserving of citizenship than others or that they have to “earn” their status. We must remember that immigrant rights are workers’ rights, that an injury to one is an injury to all. The immigrant rights movement has the potential to push the government to give them something better, and the working class must join with them in solidarity to help achieve that goal.