The Democrats and the border

June 22, 2010

The Democrats' claim that they would pursue legalization and enforcement together has been replaced by enforcement only, writes Justin Akers Chacón, co-author of No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S-Mexico Border.

"I DON'T want us to do something just for the sake of politics that doesn't solve the problem."

That was Barack Obama last April, making it clear that before the November election, his administration had no intention of pursuing immigration legislation that provided a program for legalization. This had been a major campaign promise that won him enthusiastic support from Latino voters, but Obama declared that lawmakers lack the "appetite" to get behind such a proposal.

The statement has more consequences than what Congress will vote on this year. By not advancing the case for legalization--or any form of immigrant rights--at the federal level, the administration and Congressional Democrats have allowed the Republican Party to appropriate the issue at the federal, state and local level and launch a revived anti-immigrant crusade.

THE DEMOCRATIC Party strategy under Obama starts from the premise that any form of legalization would have to include a package of austere enforcement measures in order to secure Republican support. Obama's position has changed little from this statement written while he was a U.S. senator in 2006:

President Obama

[I]mmigration problems in our country require a three-pronged response: 1) strengthen border security; 2) establish a path to legalization that includes fines and adherence to the rule of law for immigrants and their families who may have entered the United States illegally but are now contributing and responsible members of society; and, 3) create a "guest worker" program whereby American businesses can temporarily recruit foreign workers for jobs that American workers cannot or refuse to fill.

This approach--which reflected the main points of legislation put forward at the time by the bipartisan team of Sens. Ted Kennedy and John McCain--was crafted to reconcile the three main conflicting forces in motion around the immigration debate: the Republican right; the immigrant rights movement and immigrant constituencies; and sectors of big business eager to maintain access to migrant labor, but with significant restrictions.

Similarly, under the Obama administration's strategy today, immigration reform can only begin with confirmed Republican support. This emphasis on a bipartisan approach is reflected in the positions of Sen. Charles Schumer, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security and Obama's point man in the Senate on the issue.

Schumer has pressed for an even more conservative direction to immigration legislation than McCain-Kennedy. Last year, he told the New York Times that public sentiment about McCain-Kennedy is that it "was too soft on illegal immigrants...Unless we can convince Americans we're going to be really tough, then this is not going to work."

In reality, the Democratic strategy flows from the nature of the party itself as a defender of Corporate America. Legalization presents problems for big business, since legalized workers can fight for and negotiate higher wages and better working conditions with less fear of reprisal or state repression. Thus, as David Bacon pointed out in the Progressive:

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.

The very industries they target for enforcement are so dependent on the labor of migrants they would collapse without it. Instead, immigration policy and enforcement consigns those migrants to an "illegal" status, and undermines the price of their labor. Enforcement is a means for managing the flow of migrants, and making their labor available to employers at a price they want to pay.

THE DEMOCRATS' commitment to bipartisanship brought the Republican congressional minority in through the front door on immigration issues, even though the Democrats have substantial majorities in both the House and Senate.

GOP policy on immigration isn't overwhelmingly popular. For example, Republicans running on an anti-immigrant platform took heavy losses in the 2006 and 2008 elections. tracked 15 key Congressional races in the 2006 elections, finding that pro-reform Democrats defeated Republicans running anti-immigrant campaigns in 12 of the contests. Likewise, an America's Voice study analyzed 16 competitive battleground races in 2008 in which Republican candidates highlighted their Democratic opponent's supposed positions in favor of immigration reform. In 14 of the 16 campaigns, the tactic failed.

Nevertheless, taking their cue from Republicans, the Obama plan of "strengthening security" devolved into the Democratic Party's primary focus on the issue. Strategists and party-aligned think tanks push officeholders to take harder positions on immigration.

For example, a policy brief titled "Winning the Immigration Debate" was circulated through the Democratic Party by the Washington D.C.-based lobbying groups Center for American Progress and Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (a coalition that includes SEIU, the National Council of La Raza, America's Voice, and others). The brief called on Democrats to co-opt punitive language when discussing immigration.

Specifically, the report encouraged a shift from characterizing undocumented workers and their families as victims of scapegoating and harsh enforcement measures to law-breakers who must be punished as part of any effort regularize their status. The Huffington Post cites an Obama statement from a 2007 Democratic presidential candidates' debate that demonstrates the shift:

We want to have a situation in which those who are already here, are playing by the rules and are willing to pay a fine and go through a rigorous process should have a pathway to legalization. Most Americans will support that if they have some sense that the border is also being secured.

For his part, Schumer coached his fellow Democrats to start referring to immigrants as "illegals" instead of "undocumented workers."

THE ACTIONS of the Obama administration once in office have been every bit as severe as the Democrats' shifting rhetoric.

The White House approach was articulated by Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, who stated in a Houston Chronicle op-ed article:

The Obama administration's approach is to view border security, interior immigration enforcement and counter-narcotics enforcement as inextricably linked...While enforcement at the border is critical, it's only effective if paired with smart enforcement of the immigration laws within our borders as well. That begins with a focus on apprehending criminals, whether they are employers who knowingly cultivate an illegal workforce, or criminal aliens who commit crimes that endanger lives.

The administration has had a multi-pronged approach to increased internal immigration enforcement, including expansion of the 287(g) program that allows police to collaborate with federal agents in apprehending and deporting immigrants; the "Secure Communities Initiative," which intensifies and streamlines the targeting of undocumented immigrants in communities; and the E-Verify database system, which allows employers to root out and fire workers without papers.

In addition, a federal system of personnel audits that punishes companies employing undocumented workers has encouraged preemptive mass firings. By 2010, these "audits" have intensified. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Federal officials are turning to some other familiar tactics, most notably, the use of audits to check for illegal workers. Since July, the government has notified more than 1,600 companies nationwide of plans to audit their records. Hundreds of inspections are ongoing.

In fiscal year 2010, which ends in September, the agency fined 109 companies a total of about $3 million, up from $675,000 in fines against 18 companies in fiscal year 2008. And so far this fiscal year, 65 employers have been arrested, compared to 135 in all of 2008.

The administration also increased militarization and personnel build-up along the U.S. border, including the recent announcement that 1,200 National Guard troops would be deployed to the region. As part of the strategy, the administration also mandated that the Department of Homeland Security ramp up deportations, establishing a quota of at least 400,000 deportations per year by the end of 2010.

The ratcheting up of enforcement under the Obama administration not only continued the direction of Bush administration policies--it set a new standard in enforcement priority. According to the San Francisco Chronicle:

The Department of Homeland Security unveiled a $56.3 billion budget [February 2010] that includes funding for the virtual border fence, E-Verify, and an increase in the number of border patrol officers and intelligence analysts along the southern border.

In a year in which President Obama has spoken about the need to "save what we can" to combat record deficits, some federal agencies are seeing programs trimmed or eliminated entirely, but DHS escaped the budgeting process unscathed. Obama's budget, which must be approved by Congress before it takes effect, asks for $6 billion more for DHS than the department received in FY 2010.

The culmination of all this came with the announcement by Senate Democrats at the end of April of a legislative framework for beginning the discussion of immigration reform. The plan includes a further expansion of the Border Patrol; the tripling of fines against employers who hire undocumented workers; and the development of biometric identification cards that incorporate finger prints, retinal scans, "vein geometry" and "facial mapping" for all U.S. workers to be cross-checked for eligibility with a federal database.

By the time of its announcement, the proposal was already certain not to be acted on. So much had already been conceded to the minority Republican opposition without a fight that it had no need to make overtures and ditched any pretense of support for legalization. As the Washington Post reported:

The plan's emphasis on "securing the border first" before taking steps to allow many of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States to pay fines and apply for legal status was plainly a gesture to Republicans. Even so, no Republican is supporting it, not even Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has been working with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in bipartisan talks over the issue for months.

The Democrats' shift underscores how, in the struggle between enforcement advocates and legalization backers, the former seem to be gaining, experts said.

In other words, the legalization component of Democratic Party strategy never materialized. Instead, the punitive measures and increasingly hard-line rhetoric shifted the immigration debate back into the terrain of the far right.

THIS OPENING has allowed the anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party and extremists on its periphery to make a hard push on the issue, marginalizing moderates, sabotaging any attempt at reform and continuing to force an anti-immigrant agenda to the fore of national politics in the lead-up to the 2010 elections.

A scapegoating campaign against immigrants has obvious benefits for a party that was being eulogized as "a permanent minority" only a year ago.

In a time of economic recession, shady financial bailouts, anti-corporate sentiment, flagging imperial wars and rapidly widening social inequality, anti-immigrants politics and racism offer a means to take the attention away from the failings of the capitalist system--and, particularly, from its architects.

Furthermore, the Republicans are betting that the substantial Latino, labor and immigrant constituencies that helped propel the Democrats into office with high expectations for immigration reform will be demoralized by its failure, and will stay home for the November congressional elections.

But the Democrats' retreat on immigration and the Republicans' increased boldness has been clear for some time. recognized it unfolding in 2008. "[W]hile Bush was passing the torch to McCain as the party's standard bearer," it wrote, "a half dozen conservative GOP senators were unveiling proposals dealing with deportation, making English the official language, revoking funds for 'sanctuary cities' and giving local police more immigration enforcement powers."

Well-funded anti-immigrant lobby organizations and the anti-immigrant media circuit then sprang into action to do the heavy lifting at the state and local level. As the Los Angeles Times reported two years ago:

[Anti-immigrant] groups have begun working to hem in the future president. They have pushed for new city and state laws, helping spur hundreds of bills around the country in the last three months. They've held conferences to educate members nationwide and lobby local officials. And they're promoting the election of congressional candidates who take a hard line on immigration.

The strategy is to reshape the national political landscape to fend off future liberalization proposals.

Racist hate groups have thrived in these circumstances. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups targeting immigrants grew by 33 percent between 2000 and 2005, and anti-Latino hate crimes have increased 40 percent annually between 2003 and 2007.

A May Associated Press-Univision Poll revealed that 81 percent of Latinos say they experience some or a lot of discrimination. This growth of hate and violence has occurred in tandem with the crackdown on immigrants taking place across the country, and has moved racism from the margins to the center of these campaigns.

One hate group in particular, the pseudo-scientific, anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), has advanced the theoretical framework of "enforcement through attrition" that now informs much of the efforts at criminalization. According to Tom Barry of the International Relations Center:

The Center for Immigration Studies took the lead in developing this strategic framework. In April 2006 this restrictionist think tank published, "Attrition through Enforcement: A Cost-Effective Strategy to Shrink the Illegal Population," which lays out the main components of a war of attrition against immigrants along with the estimated cost of a multi-front campaign to wear down immigrant residents and dissuade would-be immigrants...

Key components include:

Eliminating access to jobs through employer verification of Social Security numbers and immigration status.

Ending misuse of Social Security and IRS numbers by immigrants in seeking employment, bank accounts, and driver's licenses, and improved information sharing among key federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, in the effort to identify unauthorized residents.

Increasing federal, state, and local cooperation, particularly among law enforcement agencies.

Reducing visa overstays through better tracking systems.

Stepping up immigration raids.

Passing state and local laws to discourage illegal immigrants from making a home in that area and to make it more difficult for immigrants to conceal their status.

That list could pass as a summary of the Obama administration's policies.

Now anti-immigrant forces are pressing for more action at the state level--laws like Arizona's SB 1070 that enshrines profiling in state law enforcement policy. Already, admirers and copycats of SB 1070 are moving into action--legislators in 14 other states have begun to move forward with similar legislation.

Barack Obama has criticized SB 1070 and his Justice Department promised an investigation to see if it could be legally challenged. If SB 1070 is stopped in the courts, that would be good. But we can't count on Barack Obama and the Democrats to take action to defend immigrants when they've shown with their record that they are interested in the opposite. The key to turning the bipartisan anti-immigrant tide lies in building a grassroots struggle against injustice and for equality.

Further Reading

From the archives