Obama outlines comprehensive immigration reform

Speaking in Las Vegas, President Barack Obama outlined his program for comprehensive immigration reform yesterday.

This came a day after a bipartisan group of eight senators outlined their own plan. The eight senators include Democrats Richard Durbin, Ill., Charles Schumer, N.Y., Michael Bennett, Colo., and Robert Menendez, N.J. The Republicans are John McCain, Ariz., Jeff Flake, Ariz., Marco Rubio, Fla., and Lindsey Graham, S.C.

Neither of the proposals has yet been shaped into a bill to present to Congress. President Obama indicated that he would wait to see what kind of a bill the bipartisan Senate group can put together, but if they falter, the White House will present its own bill.

Both plans allow for legalization of most of the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in the United States. Both were received with guarded optimism by the immigrant rights movement and organized labor. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and SEIU President Mary Kay Henry  were present when Obama spoke, and offered positive assessments of his proposal.

Both plans include “tough” enforcement measures that could make the situation worse: Increasing border security, forcing all employers to use a government database to check the legal status of their employees, obliging all persons seeking legalization to learn English.

The Republican proposal would not put undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship until a yet-to-be-created body of political leaders from border states declares that the border is fully “sealed”. This would hold full legalization of these immigrants hostage to anti-immigrant ideologues like Republican Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona.

The senators’ approach also would put the undocumented immigrants into a limbo in which they would not be able to get full legal residency until the backlog of people who have applied for immigrant visas is “cleared up.” This backlog is decades long. Many would die of old age before they could get their green cards.

Also the undocumented are people who have been excluded from getting visas, not because of moral turpitude, but because they are poor farmers or workers displaced by corporate globalization instead of credentialed scientists and engineers. The Obama approach partially corrects for this “backlog” problem by changing the way in which permanent resident visas are allocated so that more will be made available overall. People applying for legalization would still be in a provisional category (allowed to stay in the country and work, but not yet on the path to citizenship and not allowed government benefits, including health care under “Obamacare”), but for a shorter period.

Obama’s approach includes better legal protections for immigrant and non-immigrant workers against exploitative employers, and new appeals mechanisms for immigrants and refugees. It allows partners in same-sex marriages to apply for legalization of an undocumented spouse.

A high priority for all immigrant rights organizations is stopping deportation of immigrants of all ages and thus preventing the breaking up of mixed-status families (those who have members who are citizens, legal permanent residents and undocumented) that has wreaked havoc in immigrant communities. Both the president’s and the senators’ approaches would do this, but the president’s plan would do this more quickly and directly.

Organized labor considers that the legalization of 11 million undocumented immigrants would be a major victory for the working class. The massive immigrant rights marches of 2005, 2006 and 2007, followed by the courageous activity of the “Dreamers,, show that liberating the undocumented would release a tremendous force for fair treatment in the workplace and the community. No longer would employers be able to use the vulnerability of undocumented workers as a mechanism for dragging down wages and working conditions for all. But labor will oppose “guest worker” programs that replace the cheap labor of undocumented workers with that of temporary workers.

Agribusiness and similar sectors are interested in keeping up their profits by replacing undocumented labor with guest workers. In past debates about immigration reform, the issue of guest workers has been a major bone of contention.

Other business sectors insist on approaches that will make it easier to tap into the skills and labor of highly trained and credentialed professional workers from outside the United States. They emphasize making it easier for industry to employ foreign specialists who graduate from U.S. universities and to bring in such people from foreign countries under worker visas. U.S. labor and poor country governments object to this “brain drain”.

Republican politicians are trapped in a dilemma of their own making. For years they have been whipping up viciously racist anti-immigrant sentiments among their right-wing populist base, so as to create a nativist mood which they thought they could use in the 2012 elections. But it backfired. Latino and Asian voters went overwhelmingly (around 70 percent) for Obama and the Democrats. So Republican politicians have to continue to present themselves to the tea party crowd as “tough on immigration” while appealing to Latino voters as “not so bad..

After promising immigration reform in 2008, the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress did not push for it in the president’s first term. John Morton, director of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, assured Congress that the Obama administration was deporting people at a faster clip than the Bush administration had done. Only in 2011 did the administration respond to pressure from the base and introduce administrative measures that would give substantial numbers of undocumented immigrants a break.

Some immigrant rights organizations, while praising especially the Obama proposal, also pointed out that it makes no sense to keep deporting thousands of people while legislation is being crafted that would let them stay. Pablo Alvarado of the National Day Labor Organizing Network joined other grassroots groups in calling for suspension of such deportations pending the finalization of legislation.

Photo: President Barack Obama delivers remarks on immigration at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nev., Jan. 29, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza. All federal photos are, by law, in the public domain.)


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.