President’s delay on immigration action allows crisis to deepen

A wave of negative reaction has swept through the immigrant rights community over President Obama’s announcement last Saturday that he is postponing until after the November elections any executive action to help solve the immigration crisis.

In June the president said he would move forward with immigration reform on his own by the end of the summer since the GOP-run House has continued stalling on major legislation. His statement that he delayed to “get it right” has been rejected by all sides who see the move as an attempt to reduce the risk of losing Democratic control of the Senate during the November elections, with Republicans needing to gain only six seats in order to control that body.

Some Democratic Southern senators, including Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, are reported to have urged the president to delay executive action.

U.S. Rep Luis Gutiérrez (D, Il.), a fierce advocate of immigration law reform, reacted almost immediately by saying that “playing it safe means that we’re going to abandon our values and abandon a community that we said we were going to support and defend. Playing it safe, maybe it wins elections, maybe it loses elections, but playing it safe rarely leads to fairness, rarely leads to justice and almost never leads to good public policy which you can be proud of.”

Despite his anger Gutierrez said people should not allow their disgust regarding inaction on immigration reform to keep them from voting in November. “I’m not going to give up on President Obama,” he said, “I’m not going to give up on this administration and I am not going to give up on our immigrant community.”

The immigrant rights movement in the United States and its allies in organized labor, faith communities and beyond, had anxiously awaited news on President Obama’s promised executive action in hopes that it might help the 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

That Obama has the right to give relief to millions of immigrants despite Republican obstructionism is not doubted by the legal community. More than half a million “Dreamers”, young people who were brought to this country undocumented when they were minors, have benefited from the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program which the Obama administration introduced in 2012-and the sky has not fallen.

So in June the president said that if Congress would take no action on immigration reform, he would again use executive authority to give relief to a wider group of undocumented immigrants.  Last year, the Senate passed legislation, which, without major amendments, might have made the situation worse for many. The aggressive “Tea Party” faction in the House made it impossible to pass any legislation this year, however, so Obama promised action by summer’s end.

Waiting until after November will mean 60,000 more people will be deported as the result of a political calculation.

Many think the decision can backfire, in any case, because Democrats have to rely on a big turnout by Latino voters, who could be discouraged by the president’s delay.

Then there are the “unaccompanied” immigrant children.  The vast majority has been fleeing intolerable situations of violence and want in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.  But most are coming to rejoin parents and other adult relatives already living in the United States.  The Republicans and the right have portrayed them as potential sources of violent crime and diseases — a racist smear.

Last week, I visited a community center in Alexandria, Virginia, where local activists and officials, including the Mayor of Alexandria, were holding a welcoming ceremony for the many Central American child refugees who have settled in with relatives in the greater Washington D.C. area.  The several hundred children present were very young on the average and looked healthy, happy and beautiful.  The numbers are not such that they are going to overwhelm schools and other public services. But it is likely that many of the parents with whom they are now living are themselves undocumented, so unless President Obama acts, both children and parents are in danger of being deported to situations of mortal peril.

Things are getting worse in the countries from which these children and their families come.  Also last week, the president of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina, announced emergency measures because of a drought that is striking the entire Central American region.  According to Guatemalan authorities, 80 percent of this year’s maize crop will be lost, and a half a million children under five will face malnutrition.  The drought, related to an “El Niño” weather pattern and global warming, comes on top of a massive outbreak of coffee rust that has forced many farmers to emigrate to seek work. 

The violence is not abating.  In Honduras, the country with the highest murder rate in the world, a respected peasant activist, Margarita Murillo, was gunned down on Tuesday as she worked on her farmland in the village of Planon. She had been defending the rights of her neighbors in a dispute with large-scale landowners, and had received death threats.  On July 26, her adult son was kidnapped and has not been heard from since.  Every year there are many killings of this kind, seldom solved.

At the behest of the United States, the Mexican government is cracking down, raiding the trains on which migrants hitch rides northward.  Many Mexicans sympathize with the migrants, so this is creating anger against the Mexican government for doing the dirty work of the United States.  People in Mexico and Central America are well aware that the poverty and violence that drives people northward are products of U.S. policies of decades of war and economic domination.

So the president’s announcement on Saturday that there would be no declaration on executive action until after November is being heavily criticized.  Just before the election, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka had pointed out that no matter what President Obama does or does not do, he is going to be attacked by the G.O.P., but if he disappoints major segments of his own political base out of fear of the GOP, he will hurt turnout for the Democrats in November.

Photo: Demonstrators are arrested outside the White House in Washington, Aug. 28, during a protest for immigration reform. Evan Vucci/AP



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.