Obama's immigration announcement: How we got here, what's next?


On November 20, president Obama made his awaited announcement of "Executive Action" on immigration reform.  As predicted, it will provide relief for several million people.  It does not cover everybody in need of help, and it made some concessions to business interests that should be criticized, but on the whole it was a very positive move.  It has been praised by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and other immigrants' rights and labor leaders. http://www.peoplesworld.org/afl-cio-backs-president-obama-s-action-on-immigration/ It has driven some sections of the Republican right off the deep end; there is even worry within the Republican Party that their brand may be damaged by ill-considered responses from the Tea Party extremists.

The main positive features of the President's program are the following:

*DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program for "Dreamers", or persons who were brought to this country without immigration papers when they were minors, is expanded, in the first place by removing the age limit for applying.  When that program was first introduced by the Obama administration just before the 2012 general elections, persons over 31 years old could not apply and receive suspension of deportation plus work permits.  Now that age limit is removed; anybody brought over as a child will qualify, except for people convicted of serious crimes.  In addition, the former cutoff date for arrival, 2007, is now moved up to 2010.  Together, this means that an additional 290,000 childhood arrivals will be able to apply for relief.

*Parents of U.S. citizen and legal permanent resident children will be allowed relief consisting of suspension of deportation and work permits as long as they have been here for at least 5 years and do not have criminal convictions.  According to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, anybody born or naturalized in the United States or under its jurisdiction is automatically a citizen, so there are large numbers of families in the United States who are of "mixed status", for example a family including one undocumented parent, one legal U.S. resident parent (legally in the country but not a citizen) and U.S. born and therefore U.S. citizen children.  Such families now have a greater chance of staying together.

*The much-criticized Secure Communities Program, which blurs the line between the responsibilities of local police and immigration enforcement agents, and which is blamed for increases in racial profiling of Latino people especially, is reined in.  The federal government will no longer routinely ask local police to keep undocumented immigrants in custody.  It should be noted that there has been a wave of refusals by local governments to cooperate with this "detainer" program already.

Unfortunately, another large category of the undocumented is not covered, namely parents and other family members of youthful DACA recipients.  This is sad especially considering the vital role that the youthful "Dreamers" have played in this struggle.  They benefit but their parents and siblings do not.  The fight will go on to include them, as well as for other improvements.  A special program for farm workers which some had fought for is not included.

But overall, the many immigrants' rights, labor and other organizations which have up to now been pressuring the White House to take this executive action will now be fighting hard against those politicians, mostly in the Republican Party, who have announced that they plan to stop or reverse it.

The number of people who will benefit has been estimated by the Migration Policy Institute as at least 3.78 million, not including the original beneficiaries of the 2012 DACA program or the new expansion of DACA for youth which could add another 1.5 million. Thus, the total could be 5.2 million potential beneficiaries.  http://migrationpolicy.org/news/mpi-many-37-million-unauthorized-immigrants-could-get-relief-deportation-under-anticipated-new This would bring relief to just under half of the estimated 11 million undocumented believed to be in the country.

Certain states will see very large numbers eligible for this relief:  California with 1.57 million; Texas with 743 thousand, New York with 338 thousand and Illinois with 280 thousand.  This will have profound consequences for state policies such as the issuance of drivers' licenses.  Little noticed in the corporate press is the fact that immediately, all working people covered by these new categories of relief, including the DACA expansion, will be in a much better position to join unions and to fight for their rights on the job and in the community.  It cannot be emphasized enough that this will benefit all workers.

The president's announcement was the product of a massive grassroots movement of almost unprecedented scale, and shows that such movements can triumph even when the legislative process is stalemated.  Many helped, but the real heroes are the working class immigrants themselves.  

In 1986, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed IRCA, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, a very "mixed bag" of legislation which, however, allowed about 1.6 million undocumented immigrants to become legalized.   In the same period, other legalization programs, including a special one for undocumented agricultural workers, brought the total legalized up to nearly 4 million.  file:///C:/Users/Schepers/Downloads/legalization-historical.pdf

Labor and community activists were involved in helping thousands of these immigrants through the paperwork required to benefit from the IRCA "amnesty" as it was called.  They also were involved in teaching English as a second language and civics courses that were required to benefit from the program.   In many cases, the now legalized, former undocumented workers ended up with a better knowledge of U.S. history and government than do natural born U.S. citizens.   Subsequently many of them became U.S. citizens and active members of unions and community organizations, contributing mightily to struggles that have benefited all working people.

After the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States surged, as Mexican farmers could no longer compete with agricultural imports from the United States and Canada and were driven out of agriculture and across the border.  The U.S.-fomented civil wars in Central America had already created a wave of refugees in the United States from those countries; as the U.S. would not give them asylum or refugee status, they too became "undocumented immigrants". 

So the push for a second "amnesty" began.  Progressive changes in the U.S. labor movement played an important role. Under the presidency of John Sweeny from 1995 to 2009 and much more so under his successor, Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO, along with the Change to Win Federation, and numerous individual unions, including the independent United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Union (UE) all played a stronger and stronger role in immigrants' rights actions, including mass demonstrations and political pressure campaigns.

At the other end of the political spectrum, anti-immigrant agitation was ratcheted up by nativist and reactionary organizations such as the Minutemen, Numbers USA and the Center for Immigration Studies.  Crackdowns on immigrants such as the one imposed by proposition 187 sponsored by former California Governor Pete Wilson led the immigrant communities to organize more effectively in their own defense.  This became an unstoppable process.  In spite of wave after wave of racist, lying propaganda campaigns, the cause of the immigrants picked up more and more support in the wider community.

In 2005, a right wing Republican Congressman, George Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) submitted an extreme anti-immigrant bill in the House of Representatives, and it passed. To prevent it from becoming law, immigrants' rights organizations and their labor, church and community allies organized immense demonstrations in the Spring of 2006, with millions participating all over the country.  Although the Sensenbrenner bill did not pass the Senate, efforts to pass a "comprehensive immigration reform" with a legalization program also failed. 

At this point, some in the movement began to call for a moratorium on deportations to be called by the executive branch.  But under what remained of the administration of George W. Bush, raids and deportations sharply increased.

Barack Obama's campaign for president in 2008 created expectations that, when elected, he would reduce the deportations and push hard for a legislative reform of the immigration system.  In June of 2009, major labor and community leaders from across the country came together at Jane Adams Hull House in Chicago to announce a legislative proposal acceptable both to labor and business interests. This, however, was not adopted or promoted by the White House, which wanted a plan tilted a little more toward business so that it could be passed with bipartisan and not just Democratic support.   Obama's then White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, had told immigrants right activists not to expect immigration reform action in Congress until the first year of Obama's second term as president (2013).  In the interim, the pace of deportations continued at a high level.  With families being broken apart everywhere as breadwinners were deported, and with no possibility of legislative relief in sight, the immigrants' rights movement turned more and more toward pressuring the White House to sharply scale back deportations.  The call for "executive action" was taken up by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and others.  Meanwhile, undocumented immigrant youth organized the movement of the "Dreamers" to advance demands that children brought to the United States without papers be given relief so as to be able to work and attend college.  There were many courageous protest actions by people who, if arrested for civil disobedience, faced not just jail or a fine but deportation also. 

In 2011, the administration asked its attorneys to explore what administrative relief could be offered by the administration without congressional action.  The response was:  A whole lot.  At that point the government announced that it would use "prosecutorial discretion" in arresting and deporting people, targeting only people with criminal records. However, this program never got very far, partly because the group of people defined as "criminals" was much too broadly delineated, and partly because the bureaucracy of Homeland Security never implemented it.   http://www.politicalaffairs.net/new-obama-administration-initiatives-give-immigrants-enhanced-stake-in-election/

Much more effective was the announcement of DACA in 2012.  The fact that the anti-immigrant right, including the Republicans in Congress, had no effective response to DACA greatly encouraged the immigrants' rights movement to demand "DACA for all", and the pressure for executive action to protect the undocumented grew exponentially, gaining the support of the AFL-CIO, major religious denominations and many other sectors.  President Obama made a series of promises to issue a new DACA like executive order, but this was postponed several times under political pressure from within the Democratic Party as well as the Republicans.  Each time, Obama said he was giving the Republicans in the House one last chance to pass immigration reform similar to that passed by the Senate earlier in the term, but there was no response. He had finally promised to announce his executive action at the end of the summer.  But the Republicans took advantage of the panics about "child migrants" and Ebola to stoke anti-immigrant fears, and Democratic Senate candidates pressured Obama to delay the announcement once again.  This greatly annoyed the immigrants' rights movement, and evidently did nothing to help the Democrats retain the Senate. 

The Republicans made gangster-like threats against the president before his announcement, and these threats will now be made even more loudly.   If, as some threaten, the Republicans "shut down the government", they will shoot themselves in the foot: Voters' memories of the last shut down are not positive.  Lawsuits will not prosper; the government's lawyers did their homework and there are many clear precedents for this kind of administrative action, even under Republican presidents going back to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.  Republicans may block Obama's appointments, but they have been doing that anyway.  Republicans threaten to strip funding for the enforcement of the new program; we shall see what happens with that.  

There are many tasks left to be done.  Some categories not covered by the president' executive order need to be brought out of the shadows, perhaps under another such order in the future. Abuses of detention facilities will continue and this country's asylum policies will still be harsh and ungenerous.  Even immigrants benefiting from the president's executive order will not be eligible for health services under ACA or for other government benefits.  There is no path to citizenship stated or implied in the declaration. 

All the relief is temporary and interim so the struggle for a legislative solution must continue, though it may take quite a while depending on what happens in the elections of 2016 and beyond.

Most of all, the order does nothing to deal with the reasons undocumented immigrants come to the United States in the first place, which have to do with the extreme inequality between and within nations under neo-liberal trade arrangement such as NAFTA and CAFTA DR. 

But that is another story.

Photo: Immigrant Rights demonstration, Chicago May 1, 2006. Seth Anderson  Creative Commons 2.0


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