President Obama met earlier this week with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on immigration reform. This meeting followed two others on the subject. The first was with business leaders and Republican and Democratic politicians, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the second with Latino media personalities such as Don Francisco of the Univision Spanish language variety show "Sabado Gigante" and actress Eva Longoria of "Desperate Housewives."
The May 3 meetings were apparently a response to pressure on the administration to back off of its aggressive immigration enforcement efforts, which have produced a record number of deportations over the past two years. Activists and Latino congresspersons are annoyed that after promising to support a comprehensive immigration reform during the 2008 presidential elections, Obama and the Democratic Party leaders in Congress put the whole issue on the back burner. Yet enforcement has continued on the upswing, not mostly through factory raids, but through other mechanisms. These include increased auditing of employers, which results in the firing workers who can not prove legal status, increased use of Social Security number checkups to force people out of their jobs, and increased pressure on local and state authorities to participate in programs that deputize police as immigration enforcers.
The immigrants' rights movement pushed to get immigration reform done in Congress early in 2009, precisely to avoid getting it entangled in the politics of the 2010 midterm elections. But this is exactly what happened, and the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, plus millions of their legal resident and U.S. citizen children and spouses are paying the price.
The two demands that have come from the base and were presented to the president by the Hispanic Caucus on Tuesday, are:
*Back off on aggressive immigration enforcement against non-criminal undocumented immigrants in two categories: Youth who would be eligible for the DREAM Act; and undocumented parents of young children who were born in the USA and thus are U.S. citizens. The Hispanic Caucus and immigrants rights activists are basing this plan on a leaked memorandum by Homeland Security staff that identified the use of "parole in place," among other things, as a method whereby deportation of people in these categories can be suspended. The Immigration Law Foundation has given guarded encouragement to the idea that the president can legally use such methods.
*Back off on the current aggressive promotion of the two federal programs that deputize local law enforcement to act as auxiliary immigration police: "Secure Communities" and "287 g." Although these programs are supposed to target immigrants convicted of serious crimes, they often sweep in ordinary undocumented immigrants who are no danger to the community, as well as increase racial profiling of Latinos and friction with immigrant-friendly communities.
Neither of these things amount to granting "amnesty," let alone "citizenship" to undocumented immigrants, as some media erroneously reported. They are limited stopgap measures aimed at alleviating the suffering of immigrant families until a legislative fix can be found.
However, so far the administration appears to be rejecting this in favor of a new legislative push that has little chance of succeeding while anti-immigrant Republicans control the House of Representatives. To get enough GOP votes to get a bill passed would require very major concessions. Some that have been floated include:
*"Sealing" the Mexican border. The trouble with this is that nobody knows what it means (duct tape?), and undocumented immigrants would come in by sea anyway, as some already do, or overstay tourist and student visas.
*Re-insert large-scale new guest worker programs into immigration reform. In the main immigration reform bill in the last Congress, most such programs were removed; this allowed both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions to support the legislation. It was not, however, pushed either by the White House or the Democratic leadership in Congress and so failed. The idea now is to trade off some sort of legalization of the undocumented for new large-scale guest worker programs. This would gain big business support, which might bring some Republican legislators over to the pro-reform side. But it would lose the support of most of organized labor, which has been crucial to the whole immigrants' rights movement.
The administration cannot keep kicking the can of immigration reform down the road for fear of the electoral price of action. Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel took the position that nothing should be done on the subject until the first year of Obama's second term, i.e. 2013. But then there would be the 2014 midterms to worry about, and after that 2016 and so on ad infinitum.
Better to act now to stop the escalated enforcement actions. There will be controversy, but millions of Latino and other voters would defend such an action at the polls in 2012.