Immigrant workers' struggle spurs move towards legalization
Current proposals for 'comprehensive immigration reform' fall short
By Heather Benno
For the first time in over five years, the elites in Washington, D.C., have accepted “comprehensive immigration reform” as a feasible reality. On Jan. 28, a bipartisan group of eight senators unveiled a “Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” and this was followed one day later by a broad immigration reform proposal from the White House. On Feb. 5, the House Judiciary Committee began congressional hearings on immigration reform, wherein even the right-most representatives agreed that comprehensive immigration reform was a necessity.
It would appear that everyone now agrees that the United States needs comprehensive immigration reform to “fix” its “broken” immigration system, including pundits like Rush Limbaugh, wealthy politicians like Darrell Issa and quasi-populists like President Obama.
A political sea change
The single most important factor that has turned the tide from anti-amnesty to legalization has been the brave mobilization of immigrant workers and their families, communities and allies in the face of escalating enforcement of the current unjust laws.
The increased struggle for economic justice (the Occupy Movement and the popular labor struggles in Madison, Wisc., Michigan and Indiana) as well as the heightened struggle against racial profiling (such as the protests against the killing of Trayvon Martin), the struggle for women’s reproductive rights, and the struggle for LGBT equality (against the Defense of Marriage Act) have all contributed to a political sea change prompting a move toward large-scale immigrant legalization for the first time since 1986.
Most recently, in the 2012 elections, Latinos and immigrants en mass boycotted the Republican Party for its hateful, bigoted and racist anti-immigrant rhetoric, and played a decisive role in the outcome of the election. This forced the Democratic Party and the most right-wing politicians alike to recognize the power of a broad-based movement for immigrant rights and legalization.
Obama administration's record
Since 2008, the Obama administration has spoken out of both sides of its mouth when it comes to immigration. It stalled on its promises of undertaking comprehensive immigration reform within the president’s first year in office, continued to lavishly fund the Department of Homeland Security and its immigration enforcement operations, expanded numbers of detained immigrants and privatized detention centers (immigration prisons), and deported a record number of undocumented immigrants. With the numbers of people in removal proceedings skyrocketing, the Democrats continued to spend $18 billion a year on immigration enforcement, more than all other federal law enforcement combined.
A total of 2.1 million people were deported between 1892 and 1997. The 1996 “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act” passed under President Clinton, and the 2003 creation of the cash-infused DHS completely changed the immigration landscape. In 2012 alone, the federal government deported over 400,000 people—a record number, and that number had been steadily increasing since 2009. Approximately two million people were deported under both George W. Bush terms, which was a record number of deportations at the time. That administration terrorized immigrant communities with large-scale workplace raids. Yet, under the Obama administration, over 1.5 million people have already been deported, outpacing the Bush rate by 1.5 times the numbers of deportations per month. DHS has callously argued that the fact that it has the funding to deport this record number of people means that it has a mandate to do so.
All of this is taking place while working and unemployed people in the United States were suffering under the yoke of a deep-going recession and continued economic stagnation, and were in desperate need for social services and benefits.
Leading up to the November 2012 election, the White House issued various directives, called prosecutorial discretion memoranda, that purport to redirect immigration enforcement efforts away from deporting and separating working immigrant families. While some have been able to use these memos to fight deportation, the memos failed to stop the barrage of immigration enforcement actions. With all of the power still in its hands, Immigration and Customs Enforcement continued to deport record numbers of immigrant workers.
On June 15, 2012, President Obama signed a memo initiating another discretionary program, called “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.” This program was meant to provide two years of immigration protection to young immigrants pursuing an education, or who enlisted in the military, and who arrived in the United States before turning 16.
But now, the proposals on the table (not yet materialized as legislation) are not limited to legalization programs for undocumented immigrant youth. All sides accept the need for a broader variety of legalization.
Impact of mass movement
How did this come about? Even in 2010, when it seemed that immigration reform might pass, the proposed reform was limited to undocumented immigrant youth. The answer lies in the growing strength and persistence of a broad-based mass movement for legalization.
This movement became publicly visible in its most militant form in the 2006 and 2007 mass protests of millions of immigrants and allies nationwide, and its resonance continues to be felt today. With the outcome of the 2012 elections and the determined and innovative organizing of undocumented youth, bourgeois politicians have come to learn that immigrant workers in the United States will accept nothing less than legalization. This has forced the Obama Administration to make public strides in support of its promises of legalization that date back to the 2008 presidential campaign. The question now is what that legalization will look like.
The bipartisan Senate framework broadly sketches four pillars for the legalization program: (1) a “tough but fair” pathway to citizenship for undocumented people that is “contingent on securing [the] borders”; (2) reform to the visa allocation system to focus more on skilled labor; (3) employment paper verification; and (4) reform of employment-based and other visa allocation, while increasing labor and humanitarian protections for “low-skill” and guest workers.
It bears noting that the Senate proposal does not mention the term “family unity”—a key principle in immigration reform, and a main demand of undocumented people. The proposal also embraces the use of the hated and offensive term “illegal immigrant.” The term “undocumented” more precisely reflects the fact that lacking immigration papers is an administrative civil violation and not a crime.
The president’s broad proposal for immigration reform also has four parts, but only significantly differs from the Senate proposal in one respect. The Senate proposal outlines an intermediate “probationary” immigration status that most undocumented people would need to apply for before they would be eligible for lawful permanent residence. The proposal requires that all enforcement measures be complete before any immigrant on probationary status could earn lawful permanent residence (a green card). The two exceptions to this “probationary status” requirement are undocumented immigrant youth, and “agricultural workers who commit to the long-term stability” of U.S. agricultural industries.
The president’s proposal does not contain this unwise and seemingly impractical requirement that the border be sealed and “enforcement measures complete” before people can earn their green cards.
Both proposals, as broad as they are, contain a number of problems. First, neither addresses the systemic-economic basis for immigration. Neither policy acknowledges the catastrophic effects that U.S. free trade and war policies have had on its neighbors and countries around the world. The bourgeois politicians still shift all of the “blame” for immigration on the immigrant workers themselves. Yet these workers are simply following the path created by capitalist globalization, which causes economic devastation in much of the world and hordes wealth and promotes consumerism—with its associated jobs—in a select few wealthy countries.
Likewise, the rhetoric regarding “securing the border” is misleading. The number of border patrol agents has doubled since 2004. The rate of undocumented immigration into the United States is now close to zero, if not negative, due mostly to the ongoing economic crisis. Yet the number of immigrant deaths along the border is nearly identical to what it was in periods of higher immigration. Both the Senate and the President’s proposals endorse the continued use of “unmanned aerial vehicles” or drones along the border. These deadly and costly tactics militarize the border against working people, while the government fails to prosecute the capitalist banks which profit off the drug trade that these “security” measures are supposedly designed to disrupt. Therefore, the term “border security” begs the question, security for whom?
Second, both proposals require that those legalized immigrants must “go to the back of the line” to wait for lawful permanent residence. This “line” is a myth that has been perpetuated by politicians and the media. In reality, there is not one line of people waiting for visas; there are many lines, and each has a different wait. If undocumented people were to wait until every last person "in line” (many of whom are the same undocumented people who are in need of legalization now) had a green card, the wait would be approximately 24 years.
Third, despite the emphasis on “skilled labor,” regular working people who come to the United States out of necessity contribute greatly to the U.S. economy. This “unskilled” sector contributes billions of dollars to public benefit programs such as Social Security and Medicare, without being able to redeem any of it. While unauthorized to work, many pay taxes after applying for and getting Tax Identification Numbers, all pay sales and other taxes that are disproportionately shouldered by working people, and others have taxes withheld from their paychecks.
Undocumented immigrant workers also create jobs not only through small businesses but also by the influx of cash into local economies. By emphasizing “skilled labor,” and by charging exorbitant fees for immigration petitions, the bourgeois politicians seek to exclude those workers around the world who are poorest and most disenfranchised by capitalist globalization in favor of immigrants who they presume share their class interests.
Likewise, the rhetoric of making undocumented people “pay their fair share” or “pay a penalty” contributes even more to the creation of this underclass of labor. Any immigrant worker must pay thousands of dollars not only for the immigration applications themselves, should the worker actually be eligible for a visa, but also for a private attorney or for representation to navigate the “immigration system.” There is no right to court-appointed or public immigration counsel for undocumented immigrants in the United States.
As Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose, Calif.) explained during the first Judiciary Committee hearing: “We're not talking about giving U.S. citizenship to anybody. What we’re saying is, over some period of time that’s arduous, you might gain legal permanent residence in the United States, and then, if you pay thousands of dollars, learn everything there is to know about the American government, learn English so well you can pass the test, and then swear to defend the Constitution and be willing to go fight for your country, only in that case would you become an American citizen.”
Finally, while neither proposal includes an explicit demand for greater equality for LGBT people in the immigration process, the president and congressional Democrats have addressed the issue. Immigration trouble is exponentially compounded against LGBT immigrants, because access to visas is largely based on family relationships. For example LGBT immigrants cannot receive immigrant visas from a citizen spouse despite being lawfully wed simply because of the inherently discriminatory nature of the Defense of Marriage Act. This struggle also rears its head in deportation proceedings, where LGBT immigrants are deprived of various protections under the Immigration and Nationality Act simply because of their sexual orientation.
'Trail of tears' continues
These proposals are still in their preliminary stages. The goal is to have legalization in place by the end of the year. Meanwhile, there has been no moratorium on deportation—the deportation machine continues to create a “trail of tears to the border,” as House members described it in the Feb. 5 hearing.
This system of immigration that punishes the worker for the profits of big capitalists does not need to be this way. Working people know that what we deserve is a truly just immigration system. We know that all workers should have the right to find a job—wherever that job may be. So long as the capitalists are free to move their operations across borders, exporting capital to the four corners of the earth, so too must immigrant workers be free to build lives for ourselves wherever we can. A system that reinforces an immigrant underclass of labor hurts all U.S. workers.
We demand full amnesty, legalization and rights for all undocumented people, as well as an immediate moratorium on the racist deportations. Not one more man, woman or child should be deported while members of Congress debate what type of legalization program to enact.
The benefits of citizenship, such as enfranchisement, travel and more, should not be confined to a select class of immigrants. These benefits must be equally available to all immigrants and all working people. The movement of immigrant workers will accept nothing less, and this struggle will simply intensify if a “pathway to citizenship” is put on the chopping block.
Yet even the most gracious legalization program will not fully “solve” immigration, because immigration is tied to the economic system of capitalism. To move past this discourse of “immigrant” versus “citizen,” we must struggle to replace this rotten capitalist system with a socialist one that is built around the needs of working people.
La lucha obrera no tiene fronteras! The workers struggle has no borders!
Hasta la victoria siempre! Onward until victory!