By CHARLENE OBERNAUER and KANDACE VALLEJO
On Tuesday, immigrant rights advocates from across the country gathered in Las Vegas to hear President Obama lay out his plan for immigration reform.
Obama’s pro-immigrant and uncharacteristically partisan inaugural address combined with his promise last week to align himself with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ progressive immigration reform proposal left advocates optimistic. With his re-election secured, many hoped that Obama would stop beating around the bush and fight for the people who got him elected. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
Obama And the “Gang of Eight”
Although Obama’s speech was unsurprisingly vague, the White House released a fact sheet that outlines some of the specifics, generally re-iterating the “Gang of Eight” bi-partisan statement made Monday. Both plans leave the undocumented and their families with a mixed bag of necessary, practical reforms combined with devastating proposals that will at best result in more of the same: deportations, incarceration, militarization of the border, and a shadow economy of workers.
Both plans share 5 key components:
1) Secure the border
Obama spent his first four years in office hiring more Border Patrol agents and further militarizing the border, and his proposal is to amp up security and build more walls. In a move indicative of his wavering political commitments, Obama continued the trend of criminalizing the undocumented – shifting in tone multiple times from “illegal immigrants” when referring to undocumented workers and “hard working young people” in his mention of DREAMers. Either way he puts it, the policy he proposes remains the same, and we think Congress needs to ensure that any proposals to close the border off from ‘criminals’ also open the border up to workers. An even better proposal would make it easier for workers to enter and exit the United States to follow the seasonal demand for increased labor and include reducing, not increasing, the number of “boots on the ground” along the border.
2) Ramp up employer sanctions
While its unclear how this might be done in practice, it is certain that the proposal will include some form of E-Verify, for the electronic verification of worker status. However, as we said last week, if NAFTA remains untouched, its unclear how the flow of workers heading north will be slowed – thus rendering E-Verify just another federal mechanism to push those who continue to migrate without documentation and those who won’t qualify under these new plans into underground economies.
3) Path to citizenship
On this point, Obama’s plan and the Gang of Eight’s differ in at least one important way. Obama provides a clearer plan and articulated pathway to citizenship, while the Gang is decidedly vague on the how and when. The bi-partisan group’s plan instead grants permanent residency until enforcement is “ramped up.” However, both plans include a lot of the same unworkable components that we already outlined – including sending people to the back of an imaginary line, forcing people to learn English, pay back taxes, and undergo a background check.
4) Streamlining the immigration system
This piece includes giving DREAMers a shot at more than just deferred action, keeping families together, and freeing up more work visas. Sounds good – except its unclear if the definition of families will include same-sex couples, and freeing up work visas could just mean more guestworker permits, which hold the potential to effectively institutionalize slavery for thousands (especially those in low-wage industries).
The Future of the Immigrant Rights Movement
Neither Obama, the Gang of Eight, or even the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) have a platform that explicitly places a moratorium on deportations (which many groups on the left have been calling for). The CHC’s principles on immigration reform include nearly all of what is mentioned above, but also clearly articulate that the group stands behind same-sex families, proposes to “ensure agricultural workers have a route to citizenship,” and generally has a more progressive tone. The closing of the platform notes the need to “set aside all vitriol and gamesmanship that is often a part of this debate.”
Advocates who want to see undocumented immigrants protected and not arrested would have been slightly better off had the President kept his word to lean a little further left, but as of now incarceration and deportation remain untouched. Those of us who are ready to see an end to this absurd horse-trading in human lives still have a long, uphill battle of Congressional arguments and tit-for-tat games to suffer through. It is clear that the time has come, as all sides of the debate have said, but the bottom line is that all proposals coming off Capitol Hill are motivated by economics and a desire to court what politicians mistakenly imagine as a monolithic Latino electorate.
Just like the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, any iteration of any immigration reform proposal won’t be enough to reverse the institutionalized racism imprinted on the fabric of our national consciousness. The racialization of our prison system, the demographics of people living in poverty, the prevalence of food deserts and dropouts in communities of color – none of these statistics will change noticeably, no matter what reforms are passed. Many of the same questions will remain for those of us who continue to struggle for economic justice and human dignity remain despite who’s bill wins, How will we continue to win real, substantive, material victories for immigrant communities beyond the life of this debate? How will we continue to keep human rights and economic justice on the map and in the media? And what kind of future do we all deserve? Because the plan we all heard on Tuesday was just more of the same, and that’s not the kind of future we’ve been fighting for.