Republicans step up their attacks on immigrants

OAKLAND, Calif. – In an escalating dispute with President Obama, Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in mid-January, which would cut any funding from the Department of Homeland Security for suspending the deportation of undocumented people.  In December the President ordered the department, beginning this spring, to defer the deportation of undocumented immigrants who have children born in the U.S., who are thus U.S. citizens. 
A previous Obama order suspended the deportation of young people without documents, brought to the U.S. as children.  The Republican bill would rescind both orders.
A new, Republican-dominated Congress took office in January. Congress must fund the department by Feb. 27 or it could shut down.  President Obama has threatened to veto this bill, and while there are enough Republican votes in the Senate to pass it, there are not enough to override a veto.
The labor movement has supported deferral programs, and has opposed the mass deportations that now total over two million people during the Obama administration – around 400,000 per year.  In speaking about his own ancestors, who arrived last century after crossing the Atlantic from Europe, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, “I think about what those boats would look like now. They’d be turned in the other direction, deporting those hopeful workers and separating our families. Because America doesn’t welcome her children now – our broken patchwork of policies turns them away.”
After the Republican majority was elected, Trumka warned its defunding proposal “would further exploit and force our community members to continue to live and work in fear.”  Guillermo Perez, President of the Pittsburgh Labor Council on Latin American Advancement, told Julia Kann, a writer for the magazine Labornotes, that  labor’s job was to ensure implementation of Obama’s deferral order.  This executive action “will help us in organizing workplaces where there are substantial numbers of undocumented people.” Joe Hansen, president of United Food and Commercial Workers, agreed.  “Executive action is not all we need or deserve,” he said. “But it is a step in the right direction.”
Obama’s latest executive action, however, caused a lot of controversy among unions and immigrant rights activists, not because of disagreement over the deferral itself, but because of the conditions attached to it.  One condition, for instance, will allow high tech employers to bring to the U.S. increased numbers of workers recruited under contract labor programs, and pay them wages substantially below those of U.S. residents. Over 900,000 workers already arrive in the U.S. in these programs every year, which have been criticized because the recruited workers have few labor rights.
Many organizations also criticized the administration’s order because it increases immigration enforcement. U.S. law forbids people to work without legal immigration status, but about 12 million people currently live and work without it. Under Obama’s order, about four to five million, at most, may get permission to work.  But at the same time the Department of Homeland Security will increase enforcement against those millions of others who will not get it.  They will be subject to firing at the demand of the government.  Over the last decade, tens of thousands of workers in agriculture, meatpacking, construction, building services, manufacturing and other industries have lost their jobs as a result of workplace enforcement.  Many, if not most, have been union members, and a groundswell of labor opinion has condemned these terminations.

Hundreds of workers, for instance, were fired in the middle of an organizing drive at a California supermarket chain, Mi Pueblo. Gerardo Dominguez, organizing director of Local 5 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, called the terminations “an economic disaster for the San Francisco Bay Area.  These workers pay taxes that support local schools and services.  Being terminated because of immigration status is a violation of their human and civil rights. Their families and our entire community will be harmed, and inequality and poverty will increase.”
In addition, the President announced that even greater resources will be spent on the U.S./Mexico border, where hundreds of people die each year trying to cross in the desert.  “More enforcement here will mean even more people will die trying to cross, and greater violations of civil and human rights in our border communities,” according to Isabel Garcia, director of the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, an immigrant rights organization in Tucson, Arizona, with a long history of cooperation with unions. “We need to demilitarize the border, not to increase its militarization. The U.S. already spends more money on immigration enforcement, including the notorious Operation Streamline kangaroo courts, than all other federal law enforcement programs combined. It is inexcusable to spend even more.”
President Obama also announced he will expand the number of privately run prisons for immigrants, and the number of people held in them. One such center, the South Texas Family Residential Center, has already been built in Texas to hold over 2400 children and family members from Central America.  The detention of Central American children has been strongly criticized by the AFL-CIO.  A recent delegation to Honduras led by the federation’s vice-president Tefere Gebre even urged the Honduran government not to accept deportees arriving from the U.S. if they haven’t been allowed their legal right to apply for asylum.
According to many labor and immigrant rights groups, however, migrants from Central America, Mexico and elsewhere have been driven into migration by free trade agreements and other economic policies pursued by the U.S. government. Yet the Obama administration is currently asking Congress to give it a “fast track” process for approving the Trans Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement involving 12 countries around the Pacific Rim.
The Dignity Campaign, a network of a number of local unions, labor councils and immigrant rights organizations, warned, “Two decades of experience with NAFTA tells us that these deals drive people into poverty, leading to more displacement and global migration, while U.S. jobs are eliminated. We need to end these trade arrangements as part of a sensible immigration policy. We must change U.S. immigration law and trade policy to deal with the basic causes of migration, and to guarantee the human, civil and labor rights of migrants and all working people.
The Obama executive order will not change U.S. law — only the Congress can pass laws.  It can only change the way existing law is enforced.  The possibility exists, therefore, that an incoming administration elected in 2016 could reverse the order, deporting those who have come forward to claim a deferred status.  That prospect has already frightened some potential applicants.  “The challenge is getting those folks to apply, get them legal status, and make sure that they never lose it,” Perez told Labornotes.  “If we don’t get enough people into the program, it’s more likely that it could be taken away. I’d love to see union halls all over the country opening up and serving as places where people can come to get good information to apply. That would be beautiful.”

 Photo: Immigrants, workers, union members and community activists demonstrated in front of the Federal Building in Oakland, California, against the firing of undocumented workers because of their immigration status.  The Federal Building demonstration was the third day of a three day hunger strike to protest the firings.


David Bacon
David Bacon

David Bacon is a California journalist covering farm labor and immigration. His latest book is In the Fields of the North (University of California, 2017).