Where is the struggle for immigration reform going?

President Obama announced this week that he thinks that immigration reform legislation can be done early next year, 2010. This represents a postponement from the original idea of getting it done this coming fall. Although this disappoints immigration reform activists, it is not the end of the world, and there are many tasks for the struggle to take on.

The blame for this legislative situation must be put principally at the feet of the Republican Party and the ultra-right. These people don't accept the verdict the voters expressed last November, and are hell bent on a “rule or ruin” strategy that blocks all positive initiatives of the Obama administration through campaigns of lies, slander and disruption. The current focus of this campaign right now is health care.The insurance, pharmaceuticals, and other health related industries have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a massive campaign of misinformation.

Elderly people are receiving propaganda mailings which suggest to them that the Obama administration is planning to euthanize them. There is no lie to big nor tactic too dirty for the right to employ in their effort to block any meaningful health care reform, with former Alaska governor Sarah Palin among the worst gutter fighters.The situation now has even got to the point of threats of physical violence.

It is understandable that the Obama administration is not keen to take up immigration reform at this point, with some of the same characters that are stoking the health care “debate” (Lou Dobbs, for example) having already poisoned the atmosphere with their years-long campaign of racist slander against immigrants. The foaming-at-the-mouth crazies on cable TV will soon be shouting that Obama is planning to kill granny and give her Social Security checks to foreign criminals. Or maybe they already are shouting this; it's hard to keep track of all this swill. Suffice it to say that those of us who have been working intensively on immigration issues are not in the least surprised by the way the Republican right has conducted itself in the health care debate; they have been doing this on immigration for years. A coming together of the new hysteria about health care reform with the old hysteria about foreign invasions would be a spectacle indeed, a perfect storm of fascistic lunacy and Goebbels “big lies”.

Repression Continues So perhaps some delay is inevitable, but that does not mean that the current situation is tolerable or that the immigrants' rights movement should go to ground and not make any demands on the administration or Congress. Every day, working-class immigrant families are confronted with the reality of the current fatally dysfunctional system of immigration laws and enforcement mechanisms. Though Obama's Secretary of Homeland Security, former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano, has apparently stopped the vicious factory raids and has dropped the Bush administration's repressive language on Social Security No-Match letters, this does not mean that no repression of immigrants is taking place.

Napolitano announced that instead of factory raids, there will be more aggressive auditing of employers' records to make sure that they are not hiring the undocumented. The upshot of this has been that employers themselves have been firing employees, either because they really fear that they are going to get into trouble for employing them, or as a pretext to get rid of people who have too much seniority or who stand up for their rights. It has long been shown that immigrant workers do not benefit from these “employer sanctions” crackdowns, but rather end up losing their jobs and being forced to work under even worse conditions for even lower pay.Protests are growing by these fired workers, all over the country.

Napolitano revised the rules of the 287 g program, a federal program that authorizes local, state and county police forces to do certain immigration enforcement actions in coordination with ICE, the federal government's immigration enforcement agency. The revision was intended to deal with widespread complaints about the program encouraging police to harass and racially profile Latino people, with the well known situation of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, being the tip of the iceberg. Napolitano also announced that the program will be expanded to include more police departments. But it is difficult enough under the best of circumstances to prevent police from engaging in racial profiling and racially or ethnically based harassment, as we were reminded by the Henry Louis Gates incident. With the additional power of threatening people with being turned over for deportation, corrupt police will have another basis for shaking down immigrant workers for money, when they can't produce proof of citizenship or legal residence on demand. This kind of extortion of immigrants has gone on for decades (I heard many, many stories about this when I lived in Chicago Latino barrios), but the 287 g program is intensifying it.

While there are 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country, they will be prey to other kinds of predators: Bosses who violate hours and wages or occupational safety laws, or who refuse to pay for work performed, work foremen who try to extort sexual favors from immigrant workers, landlords who violate housing ordinances with the knowledge that vulnerable undocumented immigrants are afraid of reporting violations to the authorities, crooked merchants and street gangs who rob immigrants at gun and knife point knowing that they are unlikely to go to the police, if such an action is likely to get them deported.

State and other non-federal governments, egged on by political demagogues, have been passing local laws and ordinances that target immigrants for repressive or discriminatory treatment. A comprehensive reform of immigration law that gives federal legal status to the vast majority of the current undocumented population would stop this cold, because when the feds classify someone as legally authorized to live and work in the country, state and local ordinances are thereby overridden States, counties and municipalities who tried to restrict the rights of people who have such federal legal status could create a cause for action for civil rights lawsuits, so they will not do it.

Immigrants held in detention centers for mere immigration violations are so badly treated that there are hunger strikes going on. But why are they in those detention centers, if a promised immigration reform with legalization is on the way? It is a brutal situation, and it costs the taxpayers a pretty penny.

In the absence of sane and practical measures to control the flow of impoverished immigrants over the US-Mexican border, men, women and children continue to die of heat exhaustion and dehydration in the Sonora desert, or drown in the Caribbean, trying to come to Florida or in the Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Apart from all the other atrocities, this alone would make reform urgent.

Immigration Moratorium? While immigration reform is being fought out in Congress, there needs to be action on these immediate points. Long before the November election, the immigrants' rights movement had taken up the cry for a “moratorium” on immigration raids and the deportation of non-criminal undocumented immigrants; i.e. people whose only infraction was of immigration law and related matters, and who have not been convicted of violent or other serious crimes. The logic is that it makes no sense to spend the taxpayers' money to deport people in August who might be saved from deportation by new legislation passed in February. So the government should hold off until new legislation is passed, except in the case of murderers, drug smugglers and such.

Such a “moratorium” demand is logical. The Obama administration and Secretary Napolitano may be reluctant to flamboyantly announce a moratorium at a news conference, but they can simply and without fanfare stop doing those things - such as breaking up working-class families - that are neither moral nor necessary nor desirable to do.This would be a “de facto” moratorium which would allow immigrant families to breathe while the fight for a comprehensive immigration reform legislative package continues. Several immigrants' rights coalitions and organizations are suggesting this moratorium as being the demand to advance in the immediate future, e.g. in demonstrations in D.C. planned for this fall.

The Legislative Picture. Earlier this year, President Obama met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and committed himself to speedy work on a comprehensive reform this year. In June he met with Congressional leaders on this, and assigned Secretary Napolitano the job of supervising the legislative effort for him. As the traditional leader in the Senate for immigration issues, Edward Kennedy (D-MAS) has been seriously ill; his role has been taken up by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) who has talked about introducing legislation in October. In his announcement on immigration reform from Mexico this week, President Obama said he did not think this could be finished until next year, but repeated his promise that the reform legislation would include a legalization mechanism for most undocumented immigrants now in the country.

Most immigrants' rights group together with most of organized labor is on board with a project for immigration reform called “Reform Immigration FOR America” (RI4A), which can be read in its totality at www.reformimmigrationforamerica.org. Details can be read on that website, but in a nutshell, the approach has the following components:

*Legalization of current undocumented immigrants; *New measures of internal and external control, and; *A new government panel with labor and business representation to determine future immigration levels based on analysis of the economy and the labor force.

This is not designed to be a perfect program but is thought by its supporters to be good enough to deal with major defects of the current situation while having a chance of getting through Congress. The inclusion of new control measures is designed with the latter in mind, and is seen as a concession necessary to get the job done by supporters of the package. The idea of a new panel to determine immigration levels on the basis of analysis of economic and labor force factors is a mechanism to unite organized labor behind the plan. Over the last several years, it has not been possible to get labor unity on immigration legislation because of industry demands that any comprehensive reform include large new guest worker programs.Though some unions who organize large numbers of new immigrant workers thought that the guest worker programs were a small price to pay for the massive opportunity of organizing newly legalized, former undocumented workers, other unions and the AFL-CIO leadership were adamantly opposed. This problem is solved by the new formulation. And the majority of non-labor immigrants' rights organizations are willing to support this effort.

Will Schumer's Bill Resemble the RI4A Program? Neither President Obama nor Senator Schumer has signed onto the RI4A program (though a number of Congresspersons have), so when legislation is finally introduced and especially as it is fought out through the committee structures and on the floor of House and Senate, we will have to work hard to make sure it does not get so modified and amended and watered down that it no longer does the job that needs to be done. Senator Schumer announced his plan to introduce legislation in terms that make it necessary for one to read the fine print to understand that this is a man who is trying to help immigrants and not harm them. He started out saying that the act of coming here without papers is “wrong”, and emphasized the restrictive and repressive measures, though he did say that their will be legalization of the undocumented. Schumer has not historically been anti-immigrant, so one should conclude from this emphasis that he and other people in Congress are still very afraid of a right-wing backlash and of pressure from anti-immigrant circles.

So the first thing that we have to guard against is that this worry about attacks from the right, now greatly increased by the barbarian antics of the opponents of health care reform, does not lead to a situation in which the resulting legislative package is seriously harmed and turned from being a pro-immigrant to being an anti-immigrant vehicle.

There is another pressure from the right, namely the demand by major industry and business groups that any immigration reform supply them with hundreds of thousands of new slots for easily exploitable guest or temporary workers. In the three previous Congresses, the Democrats, both to get Republican votes for immigration reform and to respond to pressures from business interests in their states and districts, agreed to these demands from the National Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Manhattan Institute and combined legalization of the undocumented with new guest worker programs.One result of this was that there was not united organized labor support for the various bills:SEIU, UNITE HERE, FLOC and the UFW supported them but the AFL-CIO and a number of Change to Win unions did not.And anyway, the bills were killed by Republican opposition, in spite of the bait of the guest worker programs.

When the unions and their allies announce the RI4A program, it was immediately panned by business and industry representatives for not including massive guest worker programs.We will see to what extent they continue to press for such programs in the new debate. Given high unemployment, it will be harder for business interests to argue that they need to bring in more temporary workers.On the other hand, high unemployment is going to make the whole immigration reform project more difficult anyhow. But at any rate, there will be extremely strong pressure on the Democratic leadership and White House to go back to the old plan of past years and tack on guest worker programs, which will create a danger of breaking up labor's unity on the topic.

Almost nobody in the political leadership is talking about another major demand of labor and the immigrants' rights movement, namely the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and similar pacts.Increased undocumented immigration is generated by the impoverishment that free trade and neo-liberal economic policies have brought to Mexico and other poorer countries, and that changing those trade arrangements should therefore be part of any immigration reform.Obama had brought this issue up during the 2008 presidential campaign, as another reason to renegotiate NAFTA.Unfortunately the current Mexican government, under right-winger Felipe Calderon, adamantly refuses to consider such renegotiation, as does the equally reactionary government of Canadian Premier Steven Harper, so this is a long shot.

But another thing we have to be careful of is the tendency of both Republicans and many Democrats to change immigration policies in the direction of favoring, even more than the US does already, the entry of high skilled, college educated immigrants, combined with greater efforts to keep poor workers and farmers out.Since it is the poor workers and farmers who have been displaced by corporate driven trade and finance policies, they are the ones who have the greatest motive and objective need to come here, even at the risk of their lives.And they will keep coming while those situations of economic misery continue.At the same time, some developing countries complain bitterly of the United States, the United Kingdom and other wealthy countries stripping them of all their doctors, nurses, engineers and scientists by enticing them to emigrate by offers of salaries that the country of origin simply can't come near matching.

In the absence of a radical revision of NAFTA and similar pacts, there will be a continued flow of desperate people over the Southern US border. We have to fight against any tendency to favor wealthier and more educated immigrants while repressing those immigrants who come as a result of the impact that US corporate rapacity has had on the economies of their countries of origin.