The huge immigrants’ rights demonstration in Washington D.C. on March 21 was a triumph in many ways, but the battle has only started.

The central goals of the immigrants’ rights movement are the legalization of the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants, the reform of the visa system so that people aren’t forced to come in illegally, and generally better treatment for immigrants. But if all this can not be achieved at once, and particularly without trade offs, what should be the priorities?

Some on the left want a bill that legalizes everybody without penalties and contains neither guest worker programs nor internal or border controls. This “all-or-nothing” stance confuses laudable long-term demands with short-term achievable goals.

To pass in the House of Representatives, a bill needs 216 votes. The Democrats have a majority, but there are several dozen conservative Democrats who oppose legalization and want even more repressive policies.

The situation in the Senate is more complex yet, because although the Democrats have a majority, there is the problem of the filibuster. And not all the Democratic senators are pro-immigrant.

So if “all or nothing” were the stance of the movement, nothing would pass, and the 11 million undocumented immigrants, along with their 4 million U.S. citizen children, would be left facing sharply increased repression.

But we should not be in a rush to offer all the concessions that the White House, and Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) are pushing for, some of which could actually make things worse.

Recent statements by Schumer and Graham, as well as President Obama and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, suggest that they want immigration reform to be crafted according to the principles which the two senators have articulated.

*Undocumented immigrants must accept to be called “illegal aliens”.

*Undocumented immigrants seeking legalization must accept strong penalties, and must “go to the back of the visa line”, behind people who have “played by the rules”.

*There must be sharp new enforcement methods including biometric ID cards which all workers, not just immigrants, must use in order to get a job.

*There must be a big new guest worker program for business.

*Permanent resident visas must be reoriented toward highly educated workers, not family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

These items mark the Schumer-Graham proposal as being far to the right of HR 4321, introduced last year by Cong. Solomon Ortiz (D-TX) and Luis Gutierrez (D-IL). Although the Ortiz-Gutierrez bill makes concessions, they are not nearly as extreme, and it also contains some extra positive items.

But the White House, Homeland Security and the Senators are treating the Ortiz-Gutierrez bill as ancient history, not viable because although organized labor supports it, business does not. Even though we have to be realistic about what can be achieved, we should not accept this.

The Immigration Policy Center last week issued a report (Focusing on the Solutions: Key Principles of Comprehensive Immigration Reform, at which highlights the problems with the Schumer-Graham approach.

To drop the term “undocumented” and to go back to calling people “illegal” would be a big mistake. Everybody is perfectly well aware that they came over the border “illegally”. Rather, the point of using the term “undocumented” is to undercut false claims by the anti-immigrant right that the undocumented are “dangerous criminals”. In fact the crime rate (not including immigration-related offenses) of undocumented immigrants is lower than that of the general population. To pressure the undocumented to call themselves “illegals” resembles the ancient practice of leaders of a besieged city coming out with nooses around their necks to surrender. Sometimes that tactic worked, but as often, they were hanged with their own nooses. Better to emphasize the positive contributions that undocumented immigrants already make to our society.

Heavy-handed control measures, such as the biometric ID cards will also harm U.S. citizen workers. Probable malfunctions will mean that there will be U.S. citizens who will be told by the government that they are not allowed to work here.

For big business to demand more guest workers is not good public relations in the present economy. Most of organized labor, whose support is vital, will not go for this. It would be much better to push the Ortiz-Gutierrez bill’s approach of a new commission, with labor and business participation, to determine future permanent resident visa numbers.

And this business of “going to the back of the line” is nonsense. Each year, the U.S. gives out only 5,000 visas for low skilled workers, even though these are the people most desperate to immigrate, because of the way “free trade” policies have destroyed their homelands’ economies. This is why people come without authorization: They were never allowed into the line in the first place.






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.