Deportations, detentions and the Democrats

Shaun Harkin documents the ongoing assault on undocumented immigrants--and explains why the attack is taking place under a Democratic administration.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents prepare to transfer a detainee

THE 2008 election of Barack Obama appeared to herald a new dawn for 12 million undocumented immigrants, many of them laboring in the U.S.'s most exhausting and underpaid workplaces.

The president's own aunt, 58-year-old Zeituni Onyango, was forced to live "without papers" in Boston when a judge rejected her original petition for asylum in 2004--so it seemed that Obama would at least be sympathetic to the plight of immigrants.

However, mounting evidence indicates life is becoming increasingly miserable for the undocumented population in the U.S.

One signal of the crisis for immigrants--a study by the Pew Hispanic Center that showed a clear decrease in the number of undocumented living in the U.S. A Washington Post article on the study reported:

A deep recession and tougher border enforcement have led to a sharp decline in the number of immigrants entering the United States illegally in the past five years, contributing to the first significant reversal in the growth of their numbers in two decades, according to a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center.

The number of illegal immigrants entering the United States plunged by almost two-thirds between 2005 and 2009, a dramatic shift after years of growth in the population, according to the report.

In the first half of the decade, an average of 850,000 people a year entered the United States without authorization, according to the report, released Wednesday. As the economy plunged into recession between 2007 and 2009, that number fell to 300,000.

The drop has contributed to an 8 percent decrease in the estimated number of illegal immigrants living in the United States, from a peak of 12 million in 2007 to 11.1 million in 2009, the report said. Of the 11.1 million, 60 percent came from Mexico, 20 percent from other parts of Latin America, 11 percent from Asia, and 8 percent from Africa, Europe, Canada and elsewhere. The new figures come amid a heated national debate over efforts by Arizona and other jurisdictions to identify people who are here illegally and push to have them deported.

Undocumented immigrants are trapped in a vice of recession and repression. Desperate for a return to power, the Republicans are fueling anti-immigrant hatred across a volatile nation, with 25 million people unemployed or underemployed. However, this doesn't explain why the plight of the undocumented has dramatically worsened in a time when the Democratic Party dominates Congress and runs the White House.

Obama and the Democratic Party have abandoned immigrants, but the question is why?

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IN THE 1990s, much of the world's population suffered through the post-Cold War decade as the "victorious" U.S. imposed its will primarily through economic levers: NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, for example.

But with George Bush's declaration of the "war on terror" in the 2000s, the primacy of the war machine revealed the real character of the U.S. relationship with the world.

Bush launched the second Iraq War in March 2003 behind the noble-sounding slogan "Operation Iraqi Freedom." One year later, with Saddam Hussein's regime toppled, no "weapons of mass destruction" had been found, and the U.S. occupation was facing massive resistance. Accounts of Iraqi prisoners being sexually abused, tortured, humiliated and murdered by U.S. soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad brought the brutality of what the U.S. was inflicting on Iraqi society into sharpest possible relief.

U.S. global standing plummeted--and a mighty myth about the U.S.'s role in the world was punctured for another generation.

Simultaneously, terror at home shattered another great American myth--one encapsulated in Emma Lazarus' sonnet, The New Colossus, and engraved on a bronze plaque mounted inside the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

In December 2005, the House of Representatives passed by a margin of 239 to 182 the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Immigration Control Act, known as HR 4437. Author and immigrant rights activist David Bacon, in his book Illegal People, described the law as "one of the most repressive immigration proposals of the last hundred years."

The bill--which became synonymous with its sponsor, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.)--was a declaration of war. Its implementation would have resulted in the forced eviction of the U.S.'s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants.

Resistance erupted when millions took to the streets in the mega-marches during the spring of 2006. May Day demonstrations of millions who took the day off work showed the pivotal contribution of immigrant labor. With U.S. corporations dependent on immigrant labor and sensitive to the threat to their profits if they lost access to it, the "moderate" wings of the Republican and Democratic Parties made sure the Sensenbrenner bill was rejected in the Senate.

Yet the war on immigrants didn't end. The Bush administration, intent on showing that it was serious about tackling "criminality," carried out workplace immigration raids across the country. Again, the images were shocking: immigrant workers shackled and chained together, grossly criminalized.

David Bacon described the impact of a 2007 raid at the Smithfield processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C.:

The raid's shock waves swept outward from the factory through the barrios of the small Southern towns around it, leaving behind children missing their mothers or fathers. Parents were afraid to go to work or send their kids to school. The terror it inspired dealt a body blow to the plant's union-organizing drive as well.

In his article "Immigrant Rights Are Labor Rights," labor historian Peter Rachleff documented the impact of a similar raid in Postville, Iowa:

In May 2008, Postville and AgriProcessors became the target of the biggest immigration raid in U.S. history. Hundreds of men and women were arrested on felony charges. A legal procedure was cobbled together, which placed the men in prison and the women under house arrest in electronic ankle bracelets for five months, until they switch places. Ten months after the raid, all will be deported, with no possibility of return because of felony records.

Such raids and legal railroading reflect the redoubled efforts of ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit of Homeland Security, to criminalize immigrants, in this worsening economic environment. Their actions fan the flames of popular nativism. In Minnesota, for instance, ICE arrests and prosecutions have increased 650 percent in the past five years.

Terror abroad. Terror at home. The mythology of human rights and justice in the "indispensable" nation was in tatters.

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THE GREAT surge of enthusiasm for presidential candidate Barack Obama came from tens of millions of ordinary working Americans, but also from sections of the U.S. establishment. Both were desperate for change, but with deeply different visions and expectations. The powerful clamored for a return to the status quo--global hegemony, but without the barbarism of U.S. power constantly on display as under Bush.

As for the "huddled masses," Obama galvanized immigrants and the immigrant advocacy movement to pour massive amounts of time, dollars and energy into his election bid, with statements like this one to the National Council of La Raza:

When communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel, when all that is happening, the system just isn't working, and we need to change it.

But once in office, Obama discarded the language of the "war on terror," but continued the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. The funding for Israeli violence goes on. In fact, the "antiwar" candidate has deepened the U.S. war on Afghanistan. Without the gladiatorial utterances of Bush, Obama has continued to project the U.S. empire at the expense of whoever stands in its way. Nothing fundamental about the U.S. relationship to the rest of the world has changed.

At home, the "terror raids" against the undocumented have mostly disappeared--but the squeeze on the undocumented population has grown tighter. Author Justin Akers Chacón, writing in the International Socialist Review, describes how Obama and the Democratic Party have abandoned the undocumented:

Despite its being a major campaign promise, the Obama administration jettisoned plans for a legalization program in late April of 2010, concluding that lawmakers lacked the "appetite" to get behind it. "I don't want us to do something just for the sake of politics that doesn't solve the problem," he was quoted as saying.

Ironically, by not advancing legalization at the federal level, the Obama administration and congressional Democrats have allowed the Republican Party to seize the initiative at the state and local level, and run aggressive crusade-like campaigns against immigrants purely for the sake of politics...

Rhetoric aside, the punitive measures against immigrant workers by the Obama administration have been severe.

The Obama White House's multi-pronged approach to immigration enforcement includes expanding the federal 287(g) programs, which allow state and local law enforcement to enforce immigration law; extension and expansion of the E-Verify database system targeting undocumented workers; and implementation of the "Secure Communities Initiative" that lets participating cities and towns access federal immigration and criminal databases to check the status of people detained in local jails.

Under the Obama administration's direction, the Department of Homeland Security has increased its target for deportations in 2010 to 400,000, up by some 20 percent since the Bush years. In August, Obama signed into law a $600 million "border security bill," with funding for 1,500 more Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors and other law enforcement officers at the border, as well as more unmanned aerial "drones."

Some 300,000 immigrants continue to languish in the sprawling for-profit detention center network across the country. According to a recent New York Times article that documented the growing encroachment of Border Patrol on buses and trains inside the U.S.:

Domestic transportation checks are not mentioned in a report on the northern border strategy that Customs and Border Protection delivered last year to Congress, which has more than doubled the patrol since 2006, to 2,212 agents, with plans to double it again soon. The data available suggests that such stops account for as many as half the reported 6,000 arrests a year.

In Rochester, the Border Patrol station opened in 2004, with four agents to screen passengers of a new ferry from Toronto. The ferry went bankrupt, but the unit has since grown tenfold; its agents have one of the highest arrest rates on the northern border--1,040 people in the 2008 fiscal year, 95 percent of them from buses and trains--though officials say numbers have fallen as word of the patrols reached immigrant communities.

As Chacón summarized in the ISR: "The ratcheting up of enforcement under the Obama administration has not only continued the policies of the Bush administration, but it has set a new standard in enforcement priority."

Whatever the justifications, the Obama administration is making life increasingly unbearable for the undocumented. Walls, physical and virtual, are getting higher on the border and in the interior.

In essence, change has come, but for the worse. The primary interest from the White House is the strengthening of the U.S. state at home and abroad. This is the cord that binds Obama to Bush--similar to the one that binds Clinton to Reagan.

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AS SHOCKING, saddening and demoralizing as this may be to those who voted Obama, the truth is that the anti-immigrant record of the most powerful officeholders in the Democratic Party is well-established.

Rather than repealing anti-immigrant legislation and policies, successive Democratic Party administrations have simply built on existing reactionary foundation. As Deepa Fernandes, author of Targeted: Homeland Security and the Business of Immigration, writes:

When the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed in 1995, killing 168 people, the two men convicted of the crime were native-born Americans. Nevertheless, the following year, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which contained especially harsh provisions for foreign-born people. For immigrants as well as for citizens, the act reintroduced the McCarthy-era principle of "guilt by association"...

Clinton's signing of this act sent a clear message: targeting immigrants and depriving them of constitutional rights were not only the characteristic of Republican right-wingers, but also of the Democratic Party, which in the military atmosphere of World War II and the Cold War had joined a bipartisan attack on the rights of both the native and foreign born.

The Democrats didn't just carry out anti-immigrant policies--they bragged about them. In his 1996 book Between Hope and History, Bill Clinton himself wrote:

Since 1992, we have increased our Border Patrol by over 35 percent; deployed underground sensors, infrared night scopes and encrypted radios; built miles of new fences; and installed massive amounts of new lighting. We have moved forcefully to protect American jobs by calling on Congress to enact increased civil and criminal sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers. Since 1993, we have removed 30,000 illegal workers from jobs across the country.

One of the Clinton administration's crowing achievements was the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which went into effect on December 1, 1994. Meanwhile, Operation Gatekeeper--the Clinton White House's plan for stepped up border enforcement--was launched on October 1, 1994. These twin policies caused untold suffering.

NAFTA removed trade and investment barriers between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Its introduction had a devastating impact on Mexico's economy, displacing millions of workers and small farmers. More than 6 million Mexicans moved to the U.S. in the first 13 years of NAFTA's implementation, desperate for economic opportunity.

Meanwhile, billions of dollars were devoted to militarization and wall-building at the border as a result of Operation Gatekeeper. Desperate Mexican migrants were forced to seek passage into the U.S. through increasingly dangerous terrain. As a result, more than 4,000 migrants have died attempting to cross the border. The deaths are a direct result of Clinton's policies.

Clinton wasn't the first Democrat with a record of victimizing immigrants. As Chacón writes of Democratic President Jimmy Carter, in his book, co-authored with Mike Davis, No One Is Illegal:

A surge in migration in the 1970s and the emergence of the Central American revolutionary movements opposed to U.S.-supported and -funded dictatorships further intensified the focus on the border. Presidents Carter and Reagan both used the issue of an imminent invasion as a justification to increase funds for border militarization. Under the Carter administration, the budget for the Border Patrol rose by 24 percent, while the number of personnel went up by 8.7 percent...

The alarmism of the Carter administration paved the way for a further lurch rightward by the Reagan administration.

To go even further back in history, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal was anything but pro-immigrant. Between 1929 and 1939. As many as 1 million people of Mexican descent were deported or pressured into leaving the U.S.--approximately 60 percent of whom were U.S. citizens.

The Immigration Act of 1924 had imposed severe restrictions on immigration to the U.S., instituting the first "nation origin" quota system. The law included the Asian Exclusion Act, banning those deemed 'undesirables' from Japan, China, the Philippines and most of the rest of Asia.

Roosevelt's predecessor, Republican Herbert Hoover, rediscovered a 1917 immigration ban on people "likely to become a public charge" to whip up anti-immigrant hysteria in the midst of the Great Depression. Rather than challenging these noxious laws, Roosevelt's administration carried out their implementation, continuing the racial quota system and deportation regime.

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OF COURSE, the Democratic Party has, at different times, supported the expansion of legal immigration or done little to arrest the undocumented.

For example, in the 1960s, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations pushed for the abolition of the national origins system--that ultimately took place with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, passed over the opposition of right-wing Democrats and Republicans.

Similarly, contemporary Democrats, along with many Republicans, have campaigned for expanding "bracero" programs or "guest-worker" programs that are based on the needs of U.S. corporations, but keep immigrant workers in a second-class status and highly exploitable.

The logic of the Democratic Party is never driven by the needs of immigrants, but by the needs of the U.S. state and U.S. corporations, and the interests of the ruling class.

Historically, the U.S. economy has depended on immigrant labor from all over the globe. The Democratic Party's policies and treatment of immigrants reflect the shifting needs of U.S. capitalism. This is what ties together alternating Republican and Democratic administrations

Though the Obama White House has stepped up the militarization of the U.S. border and interior, the Democratic Party isn't aiming to end immigration, "illegal" or legal--but to regulate the "flow" of immigration and the conditions under which immigrants labor.

The U.S. economy has been badly damaged by the Great Recession. U.S. corporations now have a massive reserve army of labor to draw on. To compete globally, U.S. capital will continue its drive to push down wages in the U.S. for all workers--and the responsibility of any administration, Democratic or Republican, is to carry out policies that make this possible.

With so many workers available in this "reserve army," the clamor for regimented guest-worker programs has lost some of its urgency among corporate and political leaders. However, for different industries, access to workers without rights and without papers will continue to be highly lucrative and profitable.

No matter how high the walls get at the border, workers from Mexico and other countries ravaged by the world economic crisis will be driven to come here. It will become more difficult to do so, but U.S. corporations will be waiting at the "golden door" in order to profit, not to welcome.

With the November congressional elections looming and the Democratic Party doing everything it can to inspire and frighten its base to turn out to vote, it's ironic to remember that the last law that led to legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants was signed by Republican Ronald Reagan: the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986.

As David Bacon wrote in his book Illegal People, despite its many flaws, employer sanctions and border militarization:

IRCA's amnesty recognized the basic reality that millions of people without status were living in the United States. It took a humane approach by giving them a permanent-residence status that corresponded with reality.

People were working and productive, had become part of communities around them, and had put down roots. Giving them permanent-residence recognized this. The effect of the amnesty on those who qualified was profound. People gained confidence in exercising their labor rights at work, and millions began the process of becoming U.S. citizens in order to gain political rights as well.

In No One Is Illegal, Chacón described the struggles that shaped IRCA:

The last time amnesty was granted to undocumented immigrants was in 1986...This led to legalization and citizenship for about 2.8 million immigrant workers, and was the product of struggle on a number of fronts. The first was within the labor movement, where the United Farm Workers led other unions in a fight against the Bracero program, eventually winning an end to guest workers in agriculture.

Second, social justice, Latino and church organizations had played a significant role in advocating for migrant workers in the early eighties. They built a national "sanctuary movement," for instance, that aided and sheltered undocumented refugees from Central America during the civil wars there.

Fighting enforcement and winning legalization requires struggle and a strong movement. But struggles and movements also need politics. Barack Obama's record to date and the Democratic Party's policies on immigration over time should inform how we struggle, how we approach the upcoming midterm elections, and how we relate to the Democratic Party.

America's second-most enthusiastic capitalist party can never be our party or on our side. We can't let the interests that shape the politics and policies of the Democratic Party shape the politics and actions of immigrant rights movement or any other struggle.