In a bold and welcome action, President Obama announced last week that he would temporarily end the threat of deportation for an estimated five million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. This delivers a huge relief to almost one-half of the estimated 11 million who now live in the shadows because of their undocumented status.
Those covered include parents of U.S.-born children and immigrants who have been in the country for five years, an estimated 4 million people. An additional 1 million will benefit from removal of age limits in the president’s 2012 executive order that gave deportation relief to children brought to the United States by their parents without legal status, a generation often called “Dreamers.” These immigrant children have spent most of their lives in the U.S. but because they are undocumented, no matter how hard they work or how much they achieve educationally, they are forced to live a semi-legal life.
Republicans raged that the president’s action would practically end the world as we know it. But nothing of the sort has happened since Obama’s announcement. Executive orders on immigration have been issued by presidents of both parties since Eisenhower. Yet, the Republicans threaten to shut down the government, impeach the president or at the very least block his Cabinet and court nominations and immigration reform legislation
President Obama’s order does not extend legal status to either the Dreamers or the newly eligible immigrants. It simply provides a temporary respite from threats of deportation.
Certainly it falls far short of what needs to be done to reform the immigration system so it is fair for families and workers. The new executive order still leaves some 6 million hard-working undocumented immigrants who could still be living in fear of being ripped from their families. But it is an enormous step in the right direction.
To permanently change immigration law for the better, Congress has to do its job and pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that addresses the reality that 11 million people live in and contribute to this country economically and civicly yet do not have any legal protection.
Employers, politicians and law enforcement officials often use this situation for financial or personal gain, making 11 million people vulnerable to immoral and often illegal practices. Republican fulminating about “amnesty” as some kind of threat to our way of life is designed to cover up the reality of the profits made from exploitation of undocumented workers and from pitting native-born against immigrant workers – all of whom have a common interest in fighting for fair treatment, better wages and conditions and an end to exploitation for greed.
Preventing these 11 million people from obtaining legal status hurts all Americans, morally and economically. The Republican effort to whip up hysteria on the issue essentially seeks to hold these families and individuals hostage. That is what’s anti-American!
In short, what the immigration battle represents is a battle over whether or not to expand democracy and what it means to be an American. There was a time in U.S. history when enslaved black people were not considered American – or even fully human! The U.S. Constitution said they would be counted as three-fifths of a person. That began to change with the onset of the Civil War, and arguably the most famous and important U.S. presidential executive order in history: the Emancipation Proclamation.
But as significant as that order was, it did not abolish slavery, nor did it confer citizenship on the newly freed people. That had to be done by Congress in the form of legislation that led to constitutional amendments.
Other historic executive orders that helped pave the way to a freer and better United States include: Truman’s Executive Order 9981 that desegregated the armed forces; FDR’s Executive Order 7034 establishing the Works Progress Administration; Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925, creating the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10730, enforcing the desegregation of schools by sending federal troops to Little Rock, Ark. Each of these orders had to be accompanied by congressional action. Each of these orders had moral as well as political and economic authority on their side, backed up by movements of ordinary people making sure that America’s promise of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness is kept.
The “undocumented and unafraid” young Dreamers are the conscience of America on this issue today. They have, at great risk to themselves and their families, stepped out of the shadows and said, “We have been here most of our lives. We are patriotic. We contribute to the country. We want to be counted as Americans.” Through their actions, these undaunted young people are redefining the concepts of citizenship. Shouldn’t they – and other undocumented immigrants – have a shot at legalizing their status? Shouldn’t people be judged by their actions and not their birthplace?
There will be some who argue that America’s promise is for citizens only. But what makes a citizen? People emigrate to the United States and become citizens all the time. Immigration laws, historically and today, have been designed to limit immigration from certain countries and class statuses. Remember, we used to have laws that said white and black people could not be educated together, or even drink from the same water fountain. There were laws that denied women the right to vote or own property. Laws should serve society’s democratic functioning and fit with the times. When unfair laws stand in the way of democracy, they need to be changed.
President Obama’s order needs to get strong support. Yet it is just the first step in overhauling our broken immigration system. With the Republicans screaming all the time, instead of cooperating with their Democratic colleagues and the president, the prospects of getting anything passed in the new Congress are dim indeed. But all is not hopeless. Republicans will have to finally show they can do more than obstruct and attack everything the president does. Winning control of the Senate was not a mandate for more of the same, nor was it a mandate for their right-wing agenda. So we have a big opportunity and challenge: Keep the pressure on for comprehensive, fair, immigration reform legislation.
Photo: Demonstration in which activists note the importance of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. AP