Washington plays politics on immigration

Lance Selfa looks at the dynamics of the immigration issue in mainstream politics.

Immigrant rights activists march in Washington for just reformImmigrant rights activists march in Washington for just reform

THE CONVENTIONAL wisdom among the political and media establishment is that "the stars are aligning" for the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.

The Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of senators including Tea Party favorite Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), has announced a framework for legislation. President Obama says he wants immigration reform to be a top priority, and he largely agrees with the Senate group.

But should we be so sure that immigration reform will pass this Congress? And even more importantly, if it does, will it meet the needs of immigrant workers? On both questions, skepticism is in order. As Cathi Tactaquin and Gerald Lenoir wrote on the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights blog:

Yes, a door has opened for immigration reform--but the road to reform is a rocky one and it's quite possible that what we see at the end falls way below the standard for fairness. The political line-up on immigration in both the House and the Senate continues to be a dangerous one--and the devil will be in the details of any "deal" on immigration reform.

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IMMIGRATION REFORM only catapulted to the top of the Washington agenda in the wake of the November 2012 election, when Latino and Asian voters--the two groups that immigration policy affects the most--turned out in record numbers, and seven in 10 supported the Democrats. Republican leaders like Arizona Sen. John McCain warned that the GOP had to drop its iron wall of opposition to comprehensive immigration reform or else lose the Latino vote for a generation.

After promising to make reform of the nation's "broken" immigration system one of his main first-term priorities, Obama barely did anything to push for it. Instead, his administration zealously expanded Bush-era policies of E-verify and "Secure Communities," which injected the Department of Homeland Security much more firmly into the daily lives of immigrant communities across the country.

As a result, the Obama administration has deported immigrants at a rate almost 60 percent higher than the Bush administration did.

The closest that immigration legislation came to passing in the last four years was during the lame duck congressional session following the 2010 Republican sweep in the midterm elections. Twice, the Democratic-controlled Senate failed to break GOP filibusters of a much watered-down version of the DREAM Act.

Versions of the DREAM Act, which aims to provide a conditional "path to citizenship" for immigrant youth who have grown up largely in the U.S., have languished in Congress since 2001. In 2010, to appease right-wing critics, the DREAM Act's Democratic sponsors greatly narrowed its application and included a number of gratuitous restrictions--such as barring the undocumented from participation in the Obama health care law's health insurance exchanges.

But when the time for Senate voting came, even these sops to the right weren't enough to reach the 60-vote super-majority necessary to break Republican obstructionism. Five conservative Democratic senators either voted against the DREAM Act or didn't vote, sealing its fate.

Obama, who was pretty much a bystander as the DREAM Act went down to defeat, shelved immigration reform until June 2012. Then--facing protests from young immigrant rights activists, including a sit-in at his campaign offices in Denver--Obama issued an executive order for "deferred action." The order implemented some of the DREAM Act's provisions for a limited number of immigrant youth.

Even though he didn't make immigration reform a central part of his re-election campaign, the executive order rekindled hope that Obama would finally break the immigration reform logjam in his second term. According to a November 2012 Latino Decision poll, 58 percent of Latino registered voters reported that Obama's "deferred action" order made them more enthusiastic to vote for Obama.

It's worth remembering this background when considering the prospects for the passage of immigration reform this time around.

All of the recent efforts at reform have tried to combine tough "enforcement" measures with some policy initiatives that legalize at least some of the undocumented, under the rubric of a "path to citizenship."

Both "sides" of the bipartisan debate, such as it is, agree on increased "border security." But the "path to citizenship" has less support among politicians--even though opinion polls show that a majority of Americans supports granting legal status to undocumented immigrants who have lived and worked in the U.S.

The pattern has been that Democrats, seeking to curry favor with Republican critics, accept more and more "security" proposals, hoping conservatives will agree to some measures for "citizenship." This has the effect of making immigration reform bills more and more punitive and repressive--while not satisfying the right-wing critics.

The current Gang of Eight "framework" has broached the idea of a mandatory biometric ID card that all immigrants--or all citizens--may be forced to carry. But for many in the Republican Party, not even "a Berlin Wall on the Mexican border," in the words of Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), will make them support a "path to citizenship."

In other words, the path of least resistance has been a doubling down on "border security." Legislation initially sold as an attempt to win justice for immigrants has become little more than pork-barrel projects for the repressive apparatus along the border.

Since 1986, when the last major immigration reform bill passed in Washington, various federal agencies have spent about $219 billion in today's dollars--"roughly the entire cost of the space shuttle program," according to a 2012 National Public Radio (NPR) report. Even the right-wing chair of the House Appropriations committee told NPR that he views the border security apparatus as a "mini-industrial complex," with a vested interest in its own expansion.

If you simply listened to the right-wing echo chamber, you would think that "border security" is a national crisis. Yet given the effects of the Great Recession, stepped-up repression against immigrants in the U.S., and some changes in the structure of available jobs in Mexico, net unauthorized immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border is essentially nil, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

As long as "border security" and justice for the undocumented are paired in a single bill--and as long as intransigent nativists can blow up any compromise--immigration reform is easier to scuttle than to pass.

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THROUGH ALL the recent years of struggle over immigration rights, two forces have kept the prospect of immigration reform alive. First--and most important--is the untiring activism of thousands of immigrant rights supporters and the undocumented who keep forcing politicians to face the issue. But second, big business has wanted reform of U.S. immigration laws for its own interests.

Thus, both Democrats and Republicans have put forth various schemes for immigration reform. The question, as before, is whether any reform that emerges from congressional debate will respond mainly to big business--or if it provides some modicum of justice for the undocumented.

For business, the aim of immigration reform has been to assure a steady workforce, with limited (or no) political or labor rights. At one end of the spectrum, business is pressing for expansion of visas to high-skilled and educated workers, especially in the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Obama himself often sells his immigration policy as a way to help U.S. economic competitiveness against its rivals, as he noted in a January speech in Las Vegas:

Intel was started with the help of an immigrant who studied here and then stayed here. Instagram was started with the help of an immigrant who studied here and then stayed here. Right now, in one of those classrooms, there's a student wrestling with how to turn their big idea--their Intel or Instagram--into a big business. We're giving them all the skills they need to figure that out, but then we're going to turn around and tell them to start that business and create those jobs in China or India or Mexico or someplace else?

That's not how you grow new industries in America. That's how you give new industries to our competitors. That's why we need comprehensive immigration reform.

At the other end of the spectrum, agribusiness and employers of low-wage service workers, such as the hotel industry, want to expand "guest-worker" programs to allow them to recruit immigrant labor as needed. Left without the rights that U.S. citizens have, the "guest" labor force would be an exploitable pool of cheap labor that could undercut labor standards across industry.

In late February, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced an agreement on "principles" to guide immigration reform legislation. However, the lack of many specifics in the agreement showed just how much of a gulf still exists between business and labor on the question of immigration.

Labor agreed to the Chamber's proposal to put in place some mechanism to allow for immigrants to work in low-wage service sectors, while leaving many of the details to be worked out later. The joint AFL-Chamber statement said the agreement "provides for lesser-skilled visas that respond to employers' needs while protecting the wages and working conditions of lesser-skilled workers--foreign or domestic."

Yet there is so much left to future legislative word-smithing and trust in good-faith implementation--against all evidence!--that the agreement may not be worth the paper it's printed on.

In sectors of the workforce where vulnerable undocumented immigrants work, employer wage theft is rampant--and existing guest worker visa programs have been marked by widespread abuse. As Rebecca Smith of the National Employment Law Project told In These Times:

All of the guest worker programs that focus on low-wage work have one thing in common: Employers bypass available U.S. workers in favor of temporary foreign workers who are subjected to abusive conditions, up to and including outright debt bondage and trafficking.

It takes a real leap of faith to believe that the Obama's planned expansion of guest worker programs will produce different results this time around.

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AMID ALL the chatter about immigration reform, the one group whose interests appear to be largely ignored is the estimated 11 million undocumented workers who live in the shadows today.

All of the supposedly "realistic" proposals seem designed to prove to critics just how "tough" they are on the undocumented. Thus, though the details are still to be announced, the Gang of Eight's proposals are likely to reinforce the "line" for permanent legal visas--which currently includes some 5 million people--with punitive measures.

Requiring immigrants who have paid taxes in the U.S. for years to pay "back taxes"--or to "go to the back of the line" with no guarantee that they could live legally with their families in the U.S.--would undermine any idea of "reform" in Washington's immigration reform proposals.

What's really needed is a system which recognizes that in a globalized economy, workers need internationally recognized rights to work, to study, to join unions and to receive basic human services, no matter what their nationality or immigration status. One attempt to sketch out such a framework is the Dignity Campaign, a proposal from about 40 grassroots immigrant rights and labor organizations.

The Dignity Campaign aims to end the regime of repression under the guise of "border security"; to challenge U.S. neoliberal economic policies that have caused so many immigrants to seek relief in the U.S.; and to demand full legal status for immigrant workers in the U.S.

The Dignity Campaign is only one effort. Other grassroots initiatives are underway to advance an immigrant rights agenda that doesn't just settle for what Obama and the Washington establishment is willing to offer.

As Lillian Galedo, executive director of Filipino Advocates for Justice in the San Francisco Bay Area told the Nation:

The idea of the three-part tradeoff--that is, that we get some legalization in trade for guest worker programs and increased immigration enforcement--has been around for a long time. We need a new alternative, based on much more progressive ideas. I don't think the Dignity Campaign is the only alternative, but it's an effort to get us to talk about what we actually want, not just what politicians in Washington tell us is politically possible or necessary.