Is the Gutierrez bill good for immigrants?

January 21, 2010

Orlando Sepúlveda argues that Luis Gutierrez's proposed immigration bill makes unnecessary concessions to the right--and Congress will make the final version worse.

IMMIGRATION REFORM legislation proposed by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) has many in the immigrant rights movement excited and hopeful.

Over the past year, Gutierrez carried on a series of discussions with his constituency in Chicago, labor unions and immigrant right advocates. This process ended last December with the introduction of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity Act (CIR ASAP), co-sponsored by 80 other representatives, all Democrats.

The Gutierrez bill is the most attractive one that undocumented workers have been presented with in decades. Its provisions for legalization are far less draconian than previous bills, and it broadens the criterion of immigrants' contribution to U.S. society, from employment and military service to education and community/volunteer service. It also waives bars for attaining documented status, such as the fraudulent use of Social Security cards. Remarkably, it also proposes to repeal the 287(g) program, which allows local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration laws.

On the march for immigrant rights

The legalization provisions in the Gutierrez bill are lenient even compared to previous bills introduced or supported by the congressman. That's a testament to the strong push that immigrant rights activists made with Gutierrez and his staff during his yearlong consultation with the movement. "In the meetings," reported a Chicago activist, "Gutierrez was many times grilled for having introduced the STRIVE Act [a bill allowing legalization for those who immigrated as children], and was told that the movement would not support something like that."

Gutierrez also apparently listened to what unions told him. His bill doesn't propose a new guest-worker programs, but rather advocates modifications to the H1-B visa program traditionally used to admit skilled or professional workers from abroad. This change is far from what Corporate America demands.

Furthermore, Gutierrez's bill would create a federal commission on immigration and labor markets to oversee the flow of immigrant workers, an idea backed by the two union federations, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win.

The problem is that such an immigration commission would establish "employment-based immigration policies that promote economic growth and competitiveness, while minimizing job displacement, wage depression and unauthorized employment."

That's a guest-worker program in disguise, or at the very least a door opened to establishing one.

The question must also be asked: Who else was the congressman listening to? It's hard to imagine that his constituents asked him for the bill's border security provisions and the nationwide implementation of the E-Verify program that the bill brings along. These measures, essentially, strip millions of workers of their right to work. So despite its liberal trappings, the Gutierrez bill would allow the crackdown to continue--and intensify.

As Catherine Tactaquin, executive director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, put it: "While Rep. Gutierrez's proposed legislation includes some needed protections for our vulnerable communities, it continues to treat immigration as a 'national security' issue and stops short of doing away with the most egregious aspects of our flawed immigration system."

A YEAR ago, the prospects for a just immigration reform bill seemed far better. Barack Obama had been elected president in part due to widespread support from Latinos, who gave him 67 percent of their votes.

But since Obama took office, the immigration status of more than 12 million undocumented workers has never come close to becoming part of the legislative agenda. On top of that, immigration enforcement has received a major boost.

Last July, Janet Napolitano, head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), announced the expansion of the 287(g) program, part of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). The 287(g) program is known to the immigrant community as "polimigra" because it gives the power to enforce immigration law to police and other local law enforcement agencies.

Under Obama, the polimigra have thrown thousands of undocumented immigrants into deportation hearings after traffic stops, owing to racial profiling by cops. The most high profile example is the reign of terror of Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Ariz., where detained immigrants are kept in tent cities in the desert.

But the polimigra are active far beyond Arpaio's jurisdiction. Thanks to the expanding use of 287(g), immigration prosecutions are up 20 percent over the previous year, making immigration cases a third of all new filings in U.S. district courts, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

The disturbing effects of this policy are exposed by Jacqueline Stevens in her recent article for The Nation, titled "America's Secret ICE Castles":

If you don't have enough evidence to charge someone criminally, but you think he's illegal, we can make him disappear." Those chilling words were spoken by James Pendergraph, then executive director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Office of State and Local Coordination, at a conference of police and sheriffs in August 2008.

Also present was Amnesty International's Sarnata Reynolds, who wrote about the incident in the 2009 report "Jailed Without Justice" and said in an interview, "It was almost surreal being there, particularly being someone from an organization that has worked on disappearances for decades in other countries. I couldn't believe he would say it so boldly, as though it weren't anything wrong.

Also in July, Napolitano "strengthened employment eligibility verification by announcing the administration's support for a regulation that will award federal contracts only to employers who use E-Verify to check employee work authorization," according to a press release. To boost her credentials, the statement added that "[a]s Governor of Arizona, Secretary Napolitano signed legislation mandating all employers in the State use E-Verify."

Under the stated pretext of "cracking down on employers who are using illegal workers in order to drive down wages--and oftentimes mistreat those workers," the Obama administration has made of E-Verify, a Bush-era policy central to the enforcement of the employer sanctions provision of IRCA.

In November, John Morton, head of the Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE), announced that the work authorizations of employees in 654 companies were being audited, and that 267 others would be added. Thus, thousands of workers in companies such as American Apparel, American Building Maintenance and Overhill Farms lost their jobs in 2009.

Journalist David Bacon describes the impact of Obama's policy:

[W]orkplace immigration enforcement is filled with examples of employers who use audits and discrepancies as pretexts to discharge union militants or discourage worker organization...Overhill Farms has a union. American Apparel pays better than most garment factories. In Minneapolis, the 1,200 fired janitors at ABM get a higher wage than non-union workers--and they had to strike to win it...If anything, ICE seems intent on punishing undocumented workers who earn too much, or who become too visible by demanding higher wages and organizing unions.

And despite Obama's notion that sanctions enforcement will punish those employers who exploit immigrants, at American Apparel and ABM the employers were rewarded for cooperation by being immunized from prosecution...

No one in the Obama or Bush administrations, or the Clinton administration before them, wants to stop migration to the U.S. or imagines that this could be done without catastrophic consequences...Instead...[e]nforcement is a means for managing the flow of migrants, and making their labor available to employers at a price they want to pay.

THE LOGIC behind this hardening of immigration enforcement--and the subsequent worsening of the living conditions of millions of immigrant families who today live in a state of fear--is to appease the right wing in order to pass what the White House, most of Congress and U.S. capitalists mean by "immigration reform"--a guest-worker program.

This aim was frankly described by George W. Bush's Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff, in October 2008. Talking about the "progress" made by his agency in enforcing immigration law, he said:

We need to continue to show the American people that we will enforce the law. It is my conviction that if we do that, there will come a time in the near future where the American public will finally say okay; we trusted the government to control immigration. Now we are prepared to open the door to more legal immigration or to more legal temporary workers.

In November, Chertoff's successor, Janet Napolitano, described the Obama administration's vision: "[A] commitment to serious and effective enforcement, improved legal flows for families and workers, and a firm but fair way to deal with those who are already here." She added, "We need carefully crafted programs that allow American businesses to hire needed foreign workers."

But for the millions of families affected by the lack of immigration status of one or more of its members, immigration reform should mean an end to daily insecurity, the right to work without fear and a path to citizenship for all those who want to take it. The massive immigrant rights demonstrations in 2006-2007 put pressure on Democrats to ensure that any "comprehensive immigration reform" include legalization for at least a broad section of the more than 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S.

Huge immigrant mobilizations on May Day haven't occurred in the last two years, but Obama's victory came in part because of the campaign work of immigrant rights advocates in 2008. Despite the setbacks for immigrants during Obama's first year in power, the movement still has hopes for the realization of its demands. At the same time, however, the movement's retreat from the streets allowed much of the anti-immigrant crackdown to go unchallenged.

Nevertheless, there have been some successes. In San Francisco, the Immigrant Rights Defense Committee got a victory pressuring the board of superintendents to take a stand against the mayor's practice of turning over to ICE undocumented youth charged with a felony. Also in California, Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana are involved in an ongoing struggle to help fired workers at Overhill Farms and American Apparel fight for their jobs.

In Chicago, a coalition of students got major political actors in the city involved in delaying for a year the deportation of Rigo Padilla, a college student brought to this country when he was six years old. Also in Chicago, the Mission, a church in a Latino barrio of the city, has stopped dozens of deportations of people arrested by the polimigra.

And in Maricopa County, Arizona, the immigrant advocacy group Respeto organized a text-messaging network to alert thousands of people of the locations of the sweeps that Sheriff Joe Arpaio has used to round up undocumented immigrants. These activists organized the 10,000-strong march against Arpaio on January 16 in Phoenix.

GIVEN THE scale of the anti-immigrant crackdown by government authorities, many in the immigrant rights movement highlight the amnesty provisions in the Gutierrez bill as a progressive alternative. And after a year of unrealized hopes and increased threats, many in the undocumented immigrant community are willing to take the deal.

One undocumented activist in Chicago described the legalization parts of the bill as "very accessible for many of us, and we know that whatever they do now, there will always be undocumented people and companies who need them." This activist is asking the immigrant rights movement to support the bill.

The problem, of course, is that Gutierrez's legalization procedures come packaged with ramped-up enforcement. In this, Gutierrez seems to be following the line established by Bush and Chertoff, and continued by Obama and Napolitano. Moreover, as the pending health care legislation shows, any final bill voted on by Congress is guaranteed to be much worse than the proposal put forward by Gutierrez.

In fact, the Republican right in Congress declared Gutierrez's bill "dead on arrival," while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi assured Democrats in the House that they wouldn't have to vote on hot issues such as immigration reform before the Senate moved on them first.

The proposed Senate legislation is much worse than Gutierrez's. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Senate subcommittee on immigration, has already drawn up a bill in collaboration with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) "When the President asks me whether we can pass comprehensive immigration reform this Congress, I will smile and say, 'Mr. President, yes we can'," said Schumer.

His proposal repeats many of the worst elements in the failed 2006 and 2007 immigration bills: a guest-worker program, draconian enforcement and restrictive legalization procedures, plus E-Verify, biometric identity systems and a clampdown on the border to stop "illegal" immigration.

Despite this activity around legislation, no one is sure whether Obama is going to make a push for it. The White House reportedly fears that in the context of high unemployment and the looming midterm elections, immigration reform is a losing proposition.

Certainly the right will have more space for racist diatribes against Mexicans in the midst of a recession. And even though the capitalist class wants a guest-worker program to keep pushing down wages, it's unclear if they'll be able to shut up the bigots in the Republican Party.

So where does all this leave the Gutierrez bill? Millions of undocumented workers want an immigration reform that provides for legalization. Many won't examine the fine print that includes increased enforcement and mechanisms to establish guest-worker programs.

What's more, the Gutierrez bill will become part of a congressional bait-and-switch operation in which the liberal elements of the legislation are promoted to excite Latino voters, only to be ditched in the end--as was the case with the public option in the health care reform bill.

For these reasons, the left wing of the immigrant rights movement has to keep pushing for genuine amnesty legislation without tying itself to the Gutierrez bill. We need to highlight the ways in which the Gutierrez bill would consolidate Obama's harsh enforcement policies. And we can't stand by while Congress prepares even worse immigration legislation. Instead, we have to fight for what undocumented workers really need: amnesty.

Finally, the fight for genuine amnesty legislation needs to become a beacon of solidarity for all workers. This May Day, we need to march for both jobs and legalization--the right to work--for all.

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