Another failure in the making?

September 17, 2009

Justin Akers Chacón explains how the Obama administration's embrace of an "enforcement-first" approach to immigration is likely to lead to a "reform-never" outcome.

AS BARACK Obama's modest health care reform proposals sputter out amid opposition--from the right and within his own party--the prospects for real immigration reform are also fading.

The duck-and-cover response to the motley assortment of screaming reactionaries, a fragmented Republican Party, a smattering of conservative Democrats and the profit-soaked health care industry that underwrites them bodes poorly for the passage of a positive legalization bill--especially since any effort at reform will have to confront a similar alignment of hostile forces deeply invested in maintaining the status quo.

Obama and congressional Democrats have already conceded vast political terrain before the immigration debate has even begun. And with the legislation that is currently being assembled, they will have even less to inspire their base of supporters.

The Democrats have adopted large segments of the Republican program as their own--above all, the "enforcement first" strategy. Thus, the right--in spite of its repudiation in the 2008 election--has been able to hold its ground on immigration and set the terms of the debate.

Marching for immigrant rights in San Francisco
Marching for immigrant rights in San Francisco (Josh On | SW)

If the Democrats fail to achieve real immigration reform--despite controlling the executive branch and enjoying comfortable majorities in both houses of Congress--it will be, like health care, another grave disappointment for the party's supporters, including immigrants themselves, and it will further reinvigorate the Republican Party.


OBAMA AND the Democrats' looming failure on immigration reform were foreshadowed as far back as 2005. As a rising star in the party being groomed for 2008, Obama staked out a position that aligned him with Republican logic. In a Wall Street Journal editorial co-authored with Republican Sen. Mel Martinez in 2005, Obama declared:

To begin with, the agencies charged with border security require new technology, new facilities and more people to stop, process and deport illegal immigrants. But while security might start at our borders, it doesn't end there...We need a guest-worker program to replace the flood of illegals with a regulated stream of legals who enter the U.S. after checks and with access to labor rights.

We believe successful, comprehensive immigration reform can be achieved by combining the strongest elements of...border-security...with [a] realistic workplace and earned citizenship program.

With a nod to the extreme right, Obama and Martinez concluded in bizarre fashion with the statement that "we fail to protect our children if we do not regain control over our immigration system."

Beginning in 2006, a powerful protest movement of immigrant workers emerged that helped sink the far right's most draconian proposals at a time when they still controlled Congress--for example, the now notorious Sensenbrenner-King bill that would have made undocumented immigration a felony. Subsequent elections continued to register pro-immigrant opposition to the Republicans--in the 2006 mid-term elections and in 2008, some of the most virulent anti-immigrant demagogues were swept from office.

Nevertheless, the Democrats' approach has continued to make the right wing relevant. Though out of power, the right still directs the debate.

The Obama administration's "security measures" have been lifted directly from the Republican regime of repressive measures designed to push undocumented workers out of the workplace, isolate them even more into segregated communities, and force them to seek employment even deeper underground.

By pledging not to support any legislation unless it is framed by "strong, bipartisan commitment," Obama and the Democrats dispelled any illusion that they intend to challenge the status quo. As Charles Schumer, chair of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration and Obama administration front man on the issue, declared, "Unless we can convince Americans we're going to be really tough, then this is not going to work."

Reflecting this, Obama's first directives on immigration included: increased funding for border militarization, expansion of the 287(g) program to increase police involvement in immigration enforcement, and streamlining and expanding the Bush-era immigrant detention system.

While paramilitary workplace raids have ceased, they have reemerged in another form through the expansion of the federal E-Verify database system, and increased auditing and sanctions against companies that hire undocumented workers.

This has allowed for lower-profile, but no less pernicious, "sanction raids"--in which the threat of employer sanctions forces some companies to turn out their undocumented workers without the need for high-powered rifles, ankle cuffs and monitoring devices. It has also given employers more control over undocumented workers.

As an example of this new crackdown, the Los Angeles-based American Apparel recently announced it will mass-fire 1,500 workers rather than face sanctions after being audited by federal officials. John Morton, the new chief of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, promised to ratchet up sanction raids, saying that "654 companies are currently being audited, and...many more employers will be notified soon that they also will be under scrutiny by the government."

The purpose of this strategy is to create crisis conditions for undocumented workers and their families, so that they will "self-deport." In reality, this only increases unemployment and poverty without providing any solutions, as many immigrant workers have no jobs to return to and have already established family and social ties in the U.S.

The sanctions crackdown only creates the impression that immigration is being brought "under control"--without addressing the issue of economic displacement that is affects both immigrant and domestic-born workers in the U.S.


THE DRIFT to the right has revealed that the Democrats do not have a principled approach on immigration reform. They are pulled between corporate interests that oppose legalization (and anything else that would make working-class organization stronger), electoral strategies that appeal to the most backwards sentiments in society instead of the most progressive, and a majority working class voting base that desires reform but lacks the financial power to have a real influence in national politics.

Under these conditions, the Democrats function like a ship at sea without a sail or rudder, seemingly twisting in all directions, but in reality moving along with the dominant current.

Instead of catching up to the political and demographic shifts and realignments that created a Democratic majority, enabled the election of the first African American president and revealed a growing Latino electorate, Democrats continue to pander to a mythical anti-immigrant majority, a graying population of unrehabilitated segregationists and the mainstream media.

The Obama administration has so far chosen to make pleas to conservative Republicans and "blue dog" Democrats to get on board with immigration reform they can stand behind, rather than mobilize majority sentiment to marginalize the small but well-funded anti-immigrant movement.

Rather than begin with a call for legalization, which would energize immigrant communities, unions and the Democratic Party base, and throw Republican opponents on the defensive at time when they are weak, divided and vulnerable, the Democrats choose to prop up the Republican Party by claiming its strategy.

The formula of "getting tough on immigration first, legalization later" has opened the door for a continued anti-immigrant push at the local and state level, and allowed a raft of new repressive propositions and bills restricting immigrants across the country to move forward. It provides fuel for hate-radio demagogues, anti-Latino crusaders like Arizona's notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and violent anti-immigrant organizations like the Minutemen.

Unless this trajectory is halted and turned around, the prospects for legalization will either be whittled away to nothing, or exchanged for such a harsh package of "enforcement" measures that it will doom untold numbers of future immigrant workers to an even harsher regime of repression and segregation.

Those who hoped an Obama presidency would bring real change on the issue of immigrant rights have found only frustrating continuity with the policies of the recent past. This will either demoralize the Democratic Party's base and give the Republicans an opportunity for a comeback in 2010, or it will be a wake-up call to immigrant rights activists that now is the time to take action.

If we are to create the possibility for a real legalization without criminalization, we will not only need to marginalize the anti-immigrant right, but push our own elected leaders who continue to accept its logic.

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