As the summer marches on, the possibility that a comprehensive immigration reform law be passed before the November elections is more and more problematic. The Republican Party has decided to go into full lynch-mob mode against the nation’s immigrant communities. While on Tuesday, July 6, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the State of Arizona, challenging the constitutionality of SB 1070, a controversial anti-immigrant law.

In its suit, the Justice Department asks that SB 1070 be declared unconstitutional. The suit alleges that 1070 violates the “Supremacy Clause” of the U.S. Constitution, whereby the matter of immigration is seen as an exclusively a federal preserve, and the “Commerce Clause” because it will have the impact of impeding movement of legal non-citizens and citizens across state boundaries. The suit does not defend the rights of undocumented immigrants, but does bring up the issue of racial profiling.

Arizona’s Republican Governor Janet Brewer immediately denounced the suit as pandering to Latinos, signaling that in Arizona and nationally, this will become grist for the mills of election-year demagogy.

When President Obama came to office, immigrants’ rights activists were anxious for him to move fast in crafting a comprehensive immigration reform and pushing it through Congress. Their motive for haste was the realistic fear that the nearer the country got to the November 2010 midterm elections, the harder it would be to round up even Democratic votes for such a measure, because the right would surely try to accuse them of being “soft on illegals.”

Some activists were worried by a pre-election statement by Rahm Emmanuel, now President Obama’s Chief of Staff, that he would prefer the whole issue be deferred to the year 2013 so that it would not interfere with the 2012 reelection campaign. So there has been pressure to act from day one.

The immigrants’ rights movement continues to organize marches, protests and civil disobedience, now demanding that if no reform is going to be passed, the government at least suspend mass deportations, which have not diminished under Obama.  

In his speech last week, President Obama seemed to close the door on this, on the grounds that to do so would be unfair to people who have been waiting in “line” for legal resident visas. 

The problem is that people come here without papers because they have no chance of getting a visa. The U.S. government simply has not been handing out permanent resident visas to grain farmers from central Mexico or rice farmers from Haiti who have been displaced by corporate globalization in agriculture. If there is a line, these people have been excluded from it by their poverty.

There is very limited movement in Congress on immigration. There is a viable bill in the House of Representatives, HR 4321, which has 102 cosponsors, mostly from the Black, Hispanic, Asian-Pacific and Progressive Caucuses. But 218 votes are needed for a bill to pass the House and, although the Democrats have a big majority, right wing “Blue Dog” Democrats are staying away from the issue or have even joined the immigrant-bashers.

A Senate bill promised by Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and pushed by President Obama in his speech last week has not yet materialized. Earlier House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had said she would not move legislation in the House until the Senate moved first, and both Senator Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the White House have called for the Republicans to make the first move. However, it appears that the Republicans have decided not to support immigration reform this year at all.

Meanwhile, the ghosts of Lester Maddox and George Wallace are haunting the national debate. Outrageous racist accusations are made in the media against Mexican and other Latino immigrants. Immigrants are caste as the collective bogeyman, to keep Latino voter turnout down and to scare the Democrats into backing away from one of the key demands coming out of their own base.

As many as 20 other states are said to be thinking of legislation similar to Arizona’s SB 1070 law, which criminalizes undocumented immigrants and both authorizes and potentially forces (through citizen lawsuits) state and local police to demand the immigration status of people they question for other offenses.

Last month Fremont, Nebraska made it illegal to hire or rent to undocumented immigrants. And the federal government’s own 287 g program, which trains and deputizes local police to do immigration work, has been expanded to new communities under Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, leading to widespread complaints.

Things could get worse, unless the mobilization at the grassroots by immigrants’ rights organizations and their labor, community and religious allies can reach new levels of intensity and breadth.



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.