The status of immigration reform today

Immigration reform of some sort is underway, but it is running a zigzag course of small positive moves and other very negative ones. Labor and immigrants’ rights organizations are asking that grassroots activism and pressure be massively increased for a reform that provides justice to immigrant workers.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano was part of the dynamic of balancing positive, pro-immigrant steps with negative ones. On the one hand, she announced that she was withdrawing the Bush-Cheney rules for the processing of No-Match letters. These are letters the Social Security Administration sends to employers to inform them that the Social Security numbers they submitted for one or more employees do not match the information on file with the SSA.' In the past, employers were supposed to show the 'No Match Letter' to the worker but the employer was not supposed to use the information to fire, demote or otherwise sanction.

President Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, had issued new rules which required the employer to fire all recipients of No-Match letters if they did not clear up the discrepancy of name and Social Security within 90 days. This produced uproar, not least because the Bush administration did not hire any new federal employees to handle the massive extra paperwork that this would have created. The AFL-CIO, the ACLU and others filed suit in federal court to stop the issuing of the Bush-Chertoff No-Match letters.

The announcement by Ms. Napolitano that she is withdrawing the Bush-Chertoff rules appears to render that lawsuit moot, and represents a big victory for the AFL-CIO and its allies. However, under Republican instigation, the Senate adopted an amendment to the budget for Homeland Security that forbids Napolitano from using any of her department’s money to “change the regulation”. What actual impact this Senate vote will have is yet to be seen.

Seen as a setback by the immigrants’ rights movement is Napolitano’s decision to go ahead with making the E-Verify system (whereby employers with government contracts must check with the government to verify the authorization to work of new hires) mandatory starting this fall. The Senate also jumped into that issue to make a bad decision worse; they approved an amendment to the DHS appropriations bill to allow employers to use E-Verify to check up on their existing workforce, not just new hires. If this gets to be actual law, it will lead to the firing of many thousands of workers, including US citizens in whose files there are clerical errors, and it will also give employers more leverage over workers. Earlier, Senator Jeff Sessions succeeded add an amendment to make E-Verify permanent instead of sunsetting in three years.

Secretary Napolitano also announced that she was narrowing the focus of the 287 (g) program under which local, state and other police departments are authorized by the federal government to engage in immigration enforcement activities. These programs have caused huge injustices in the communities in which they have been implemented, because they have been interpreted by police authorities as a blank check to go after people who look like immigrants, pulling them over for minor offenses or no offenses at all and then demanding they prove on the spot that they have a right to be in the country. This has contributed to the vast increase in racial and ethnic profiling by police. Napolitano is now requiring that police agencies participating in 287 (g) promise that they are going to use this authority in a manner that focuses on serious criminals, narcotics smugglers etc. instead of ordinary undocumented immigrant workers. However, Homeland Security continues to expand the number of police agencies involved, and it is yet to be seen if these agencies will now behave themselves and not use their federal powers to profile, harass and persecute people.

The Senate’s messing around with the issue also involved voting to require that Homeland Security complete an actual, physical barrier to along the whole length of the U.S.-Mexico border, a physical impossibility. These anti-immigrant votes were made possible by the fact that a number of Democrats joined with the Republicans against the majority of their own party.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), who appears to be taking the lead in immigration legislation in the Senate now that Senator Kennedy is unable, announced this week that Labor Day (September 7) is his target for getting an immigration reform bill before Congress. He listed a series of principles around which he wants this bill to be organized. This, too is a mixed bag of pro and anti-immigrant items, and is not nearly as progressive as the immigration reform proposal which has been put forward by the AFL-CIO, Change to Win and most immigrants’ rights groups involved in the “Reform Immigration FOR America” initiative (www.reformimmigrationforamerica.org. )

He starts out defining undocumented immigration as “wrong” and asserting that we must achieve “operational control of our borders” to keep the undocumented out within a year of enactment of legislation. This entails more border agents, more walls, more spotter planes and electronic gizmos and so forth.

He also calls for a strengthening of internal controls by means of a “biometric based employer verification—with tough enforcement and auditing. What this might actually be is yet to be explained.

He would have the government order all undocumented immigrants in the country to “quickly register their presence with the United States Government – and submit to a rigorous process of converting to legal status and earning a path to citizenship – or face imminent deportation”.

He says that getting rid of undocumented immigration will make a more generous policy of immigration for work or for family reunification possible. Further, U.S. immigration policy must attract the “best and brightest” people from the rest of the world, but he is against bringing in low skilled workers or using guest workers to undercut U.S. workers.

And finally “We must create a system that converts the current flow of unskilled illegal immigrants into the United States into a more manageable and controlled flow of legal immigrants who can be absorbed by our economy”.

The only progressive pro-immigrant worker parts of this “immigration reform” plan are the vague promise that if undocumented immigrants present themselves to the government as ordered, they MAY be given legal status, and also the part about avoiding guest worker programs.

That Senator Schumer’s statement was couched in such anti-immigrant terminology and contains so many negative and even dangerous items suggests that even those politicians who are not actually anti-immigrant are excessively afraid of the anti-immigration demagogues in politics and the media, and are trying to balance anything they say that seems generous to undocumented immigrants with other things that prove that they are “tough on illegal immigration”.

This shows how much educational and lobbying work we have yet to do.

In this and other statements of its kind by both Republicans and Democrats, there is no recognition whatever that U.S. trade policies are a major factor in generating immigration, that the immigration comes in undocumented because the U.S.A. won’t give visas to poor farmers and blue collar workers, and that the best policy of all would be to change those policies so that decent jobs can be created in Mexico and other places whence the undocumented immigrant flow overwhelmingly comes.