Immigration: The legislative picture

Things are getting desperate in immigrant communities in the United States. While as many as 14 other states consider legislation like Arizona’s noxious SB 1070, the prospect of a comprehensive immigration reform to provide legalization for the 10.8 million undocumented immigrants gets harder. Instead of cutting back on arrests and deportations of ordinary undocumented immigrants (the vast majority, who are neither gangsters nor terrorists nor drug smugglers), the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been stepping up the pace  Repressive laws and vigilante justice besiege immigrant families while a promised legislative solution, the vaunted comprehensive immigration reform for which millions have been marching, appears to evaporate.

Now the administration has decided to send 1,200 National Guard soldiers to the U.S-Mexico border. Although there is some speculation that this is being done so that President Obama can tell the Republicans that he has secured the border and that they should respond by supporting comprehensive immigration reform, others point out that there is no agreement on this.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi says she supports comprehensive immigration reform, but wants the Senate to move on it first.  The Democratic Party leadership in the Senate and the White House say they support reform, but want to make sure that legislation is bipartisan, with no filibuster, so they want a commitment from Republicans before moving on it. But the Republicans are in full anti-immigrant cry, and are not likely to give the Democrats the gift of political cover in an election year. The right-wing populist section of the GOP, represented by the organizers of the Tea Party movement and figures like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, have decided to make immigrant-bashing a major part of their strategy for November. Republicans like Arizona’s Senator John McCain, frightened by this, are joining in the attacks.

Last month, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer released an outline of a possible Senate bill which would make many concessions to Republicans and business interests in exchange for a slow and difficult legalization process.  It was supposed to have the support of at least a couple of Republicans, but this seems to have evaporated for now. Schumer’s plan has not even been submitted as a bill.

There is a bill in the House, HR 4321, which embodies much of what is needed in immigration reform. The bill, introduced back in the fall of 2009, is sponsored by Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-TX) and has 97 cosponsors, mostly from the Hispanic, Black, Asian and Progressive Caucuses.  It would provide for the legalization of the vast majority of the undocumented over a period of time. It abolishes 287 (g), the federal program that has made situations like that of Arizona easier by facilitating the deputization of state and local police as immigration enforcement agents. It does have some enforcement dimensions, but most of them are things that are already being done anyway. It does not have a major new guest worker program, which is why it is supported by both the AFL-CIO and the major Change to Win unions. It incorporates the DREAM Act, which legalizes undocumented youth who are able to get into college or who are willing to serve in the military or some sort of service corps. It also incorporates the AgJobs Act, to provide seasonal visas for migrant agricultural workers.  

But HR 4321 is being ignored by the Senate, the White House and the major corporate media.  It is also being attacked by some on the left because it is not radical enough: It does not give unconditional amnesty without tradeoffs. The stance of some is that we should go back to pure protest politics and civil disobedience.  “All or nothing”, however, generally gets you nothing.

Yet another idea is to go forward with the DREAM and AgJobs acts. But these programs would help only a small minority of undocumented immigrants. And the G.O.P. would likely demand big concessions to agree to even these things.

There is no option but to push hard for the most progressive legislation possible, which is HR 4321. It is an uphill fight and we may not win this year. But if we create a lot of visibility and pressure, chances for the next Congress will be better. If we don’t fight of it, we won’t achieve anything.

This does not mean not marching and protesting. We need more of that, but we can’t abandon the whole legislative field to the enemy.

Readers can look up whether their representatives are already on board cosponsoring HR 4321 by using the search engine at If they are, they should be encouraged and thanked. If they are not, they should be lobbied and pressured



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.