Why does the border come before justice?

April 15, 2013

Will the proposal for "comprehensive immigration reform" expected from Washington this week satisfy the undocumented? Lance Selfa suggests what to look for.

OFFICIAL WASHINGTON--and much more importantly, millions of undocumented immigrants--were looking forward to the long-awaited unveiling of immigration reform legislation in the U.S. Senate, set for the week of April 15.

Most of the attention has focused on the so-called "Gang of Eight"--four Democratic and four Republican senators who have been working since early this year to produce a "bipartisan" proposal on immigration.

The White House, which has proclaimed comprehensive immigration reform to be one of its top legislative initiatives, has mostly deferred to the Gang of Eight. But Obama says his administration will introduce its own bill if Congress doesn't. The proposal from the Gang of Eight was scheduled for release in March. Then it was delayed until early April, and that has now dragged into the middle of the month.

For many of the thousands of immigrants who attended the Rally for Citizenship in Washington on April 10, the delays are intolerable, reported the Washington Post. Daniel Yepes, a 22-year-old Salvadoran immigrant, said, "For me, they're just talking, talking, talking. We want to stop the deportations. We want our families to stay together."

Immigrant rights supporters gather in a mass march on May Day
Immigrant rights supporters gather in a mass march on May Day (Justin Valas)

The urgency Yepes gave voice to is well-founded. Every day that passes without some change in immigration policy means another 1,000 people are deported, almost all of them to countries in Latin America.

But the goal of "comprehensive immigration reform" remains elusive because the two parties insist on making it a highly uneven balancing act--between "border security" on the one hand, and partial legalization, under the framework of "path to citizenship," on the other.

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 bills more and more punitive and repressive--while never satisfying the right-wing critics.

As long as "border security" and some form of justice for the undocumented are jammed together in a single bill, with the latter contingent on the former--and as long as intransigent anti-immigrant bigots can blow up any compromise--immigration "reform" is easier to obstruct than to pass.

IN THE lead-up to the Gang of Eight proposal being introduced, leaks purporting to disclose the content of the legislation have appeared in the national media. One of these, appearing in the Wall Street Journal on April 9, suggested that none of the estimated 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S. would even have a chance to apply for legalization until law enforcement officials put in place a number of "border security" measures.

First, law enforcement would have to certify that 100 percent of the U.S.-Mexico border was under surveillance--and that 90 percent of those who cross the border illegally at certain points had been apprehended. The Journal's sources estimated that this would take 10 years--though in truth, the targets seem designed to be impossible to reach. How, after all, can anyone "certify" that 90 percent of an unknown number of people crossing the border without documents has been taken into custody?

"It raises the question of whether it's actually achievable, and whether it will end up thwarting the path to citizenship for 11 million people," Frank Sharry of the immigrant rights group America's Voice said of the "enforcement first" provision. "I think there will be a lot of heartburn when the bill is released."

Second, according to the Journal, all employers would be required to use the Department of Homeland Security's E-Verify program to check the Social Security numbers of new hires. Currently, only a fraction of employers use E-Verify, which is a voluntary system.

Finally, the government would create an electronic monitoring system, perhaps using biometric data, to check all persons entering and exiting the country.

If these provisions described by the Journal accurately describe the core elements of the Gang of Eight's plan, those among the 11 million undocumented wishing to obtain permanent legal status would have to wait a minimum of 10 years--and probably longer--to embark on the arduous "path to citizenship.

In the meantime, those who pass a criminal background check and pay fines and back taxes would be granted a probationary status that would leave them subject to deportation if they became unemployed for six months or longer. While immigrants were "on probation" with a temporary work permit, they would not be eligible for food stamps, welfare benefits or parts of the Obama administration health care law passed in 2010.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida--a Tea Party fanatic who has gotten fawning praise from the media for his "bipartisanship" in participating in the Gang of Eight--pointed to these oppressive restrictions with pride. "They don't 'get' anything," he said on Fox News Sunday. "What they get is an opportunity to apply."

Rubio was blunt about what the Gang of Eight is after with its enforcement-first-before-jumping-through-a-million-hoops approach. "I would argue to you," he said, "that it will be cheaper, faster and easier for people to go back home and wait 10 years than it will be to go through this process I've outlined."

In other words, when it is finally revealed, the Gang of Eight plan will consist of draconian border control measures, followed by an obstacle course for those of the 11 million undocumented workers who want to apply for permanent status.

IF THE Washington establishment's plan for "comprehensive immigration reform" seems to have much more to do "border security" then with justice for immigrants, that's because the chief concern of both big-business parties isn't justice, but the regulation of labor migration on terms favorable to Corporate America.

The biggest concern of the corporate elite isn't the plight of the 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S. today, but with assuring itself future flows of labor in particular sectors. As always, the first priority for big business is making sure it has a reliable and low-cost labor force.

One of the least controversial aspects of the immigration package is a plan to enlarge the number of H1B visas available to highly skilled and well-educated immigrants, especially scientists and engineers. Holders of this visa can apply for permanent legal status (a "green card") and legally bring dependents to the U.S.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley executives like Google's Eric Schmidt and Yahoo's Marissa Mayer (yes, that Marissa Mayer) have announced the formation of FWD.us, a lobbying group to push for what it calls "immigration reform." While it supports comprehensive immigration reform, FWD.us's main focus is expanding the number of H1B visa holders.

As you might suspect, FWD.us's agenda is far from idealistic. A recent ComputerWorld study noted that, in 2012, the top 10 companies that benefit from having workers with H1B visas were all offshore outsourcing firms.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the typical H1B visa holder earns 80 percent of what a similarly skilled and experienced U.S. citizen tech worker would have earned. So unless immigration legislation mandates that immigrants and citizens should be paid the same, Silicon Valley can use these provisions to pay both immigrants and citizens less than they rightfully deserve.

Tech firms aren't the only businesses with a stake in Washington's version of "immigration reform."

Employers in agriculture and low-wage service industries are pushing for--and will likely gain--new "guest worker" programs. Unlike the programs for high-tech workers, these don't encourage long-term stays in the U.S. And while employers are supposed to adhere to basic labor standards in their relations with employees, the long history of abuse of guest workers--from wage theft to work in unsafe conditions to all-out opposition to union representation--suggests nothing of the sort will take place.

The AFL-CIO and U.S. Chamber of Commerce have agreed to a loose framework to expand "guest worker" programs under the Gang of Eight umbrella. But that agreement almost came unstuck last month over a dispute on wages for guest workers. Behind a lot of technical jargon, the Chamber, working with congressional Republicans, tried to write the legislation so as to allow business to pay the lowest available wage, according to Politico. The AFL balked, and the bill writers backed off the pro-business language. But the incident shows the kinds of conflicts that remain to be resolved in immigration legislation.

It's possible that the version of the bill that emerges from congressional backrooms will sand off some of these rough edges. Some of the leaks to the press may have been "trial balloons" to gauge support for one provision or another. Then again, it's possible that the final "compromise" will contain even more punitive measures.

In any case, whatever the details of the legislation, the basic framework of immigration "reform" according to Washington will remain in place--above all, enforcement and border control first.

As the congressional debate unfolds, this will be the time for immigrants and their families, the labor movement and all supporters of social justice to make their voices heard. Our side must demand an end to deportations and repressive "border security" policies. We must advocate for an affirmative immigration policy that legalizes all immigrants who reside in the U.S. and guarantees them labor, social and political rights.

Above all, we have to insist that people who want to become legal permanent residents or citizens of the U.S. shouldn't be treated like criminals or have to run a 10- or 20- or 30-year obstacle course to do so.

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