"Reform" is dead, long live amnesty

Orlando Sepúlveda looks at the fate of immigration legislation that Barack Obama and the Democrats have pushed for--and the response of immigrant rights activists.

Thousands of people rally in Washington, D.C., in support of immigration reform (Lloyd Wolf | SEIU)Thousands of people rally in Washington, D.C., in support of immigration reform (Lloyd Wolf | SEIU)

"THE GANG of Seven is dead. Long live Immigration Reform!" So proclaimed America's Voice, one of the most active liberal organizations supporting a legislative proposal for "comprehensive immigration reform" (CIR), following reports that a bipartisan group of U.S. House members ended their efforts to put forward a companion to Senate Bill 744, passed in June.

With two more Republicans deserting what was once a Gang of Eight--another Republican left over the summer--it appeared to most people that the push to pass immigration reform legislation was dead for this year.

But that wasn't how America's Voice saw it. The group's Executive Director Frank Sharry declared instead:

When one door closes, other doors open. We are glad that a moribund process has been put to rest and that our leading champions for reform are freed up to bring the full weight of their power to pressure Republicans to take action. We remain optimistic that immigration reform with a path to citizenship has a chance to be enacted into law this year, and that legislation is the best solution to the challenges facing 11 million undocumented immigrants. Republicans who want reform will either find a way to work with [Democratic] Reps. Gutierrez, Becerra, Lofgren and Yarmuth or will find themselves being punished for not doing so.

To be sure, there are different opinions in the immigrant rights movement about whether it's possible to pass a bill this year. But Sharry's "optimism" notwithstanding, a number of activists had already concluded CIR was dead.

Jorge Mújica, a prominent Chicago immigrant rights activist and author of the Mexico del Norte blog, called immigration reform a "zombie." According to Mújica: "The 'reform' is dead, and the attempts to 'revive it' sound like voodoo and zombies. Worse yet, the calls from some professionals who get paid to 'keep it alive' and 'not let it die' sound like the laments of family members mourning a loved one, in complete denial."

Mújica's point is well taken. If liberal members of Congress have been "freed" to "pressure the Republicans to take action," the next question to ask is: "Toward what end?" If it's simply to muster support in the House for the bill that passed the Senate, America's Voice needs to take a look around and understand why many immigrants have already rejected the "Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act."

"That reform is no good," said Martín Unzueta, of Chicago Community and Workers Rights. "We would be wasting time marching for that. I'd rather go to shut down ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]." Indeed, Unzueta is preparing to travel to Arizona to take part in a Shut Down ICE action in mid-October.

As has happened so often in previous attempts to pass immigration legislation, the proposal, announced with much fanfare, ended up with few supporters and many critics. As Lance Selfa wrote for SocialistWorker.org, this outcome reflects Washington's:

highly uneven balancing act--between "border security" on the one hand, and partial legalization, under the framework of "path to citizenship," on the other...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.

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WHEN the U.S. Senate passed S. 744, liberal and labor advocates of immigrant rights were thrilled. But as details of the bill were revealed and dissected, these supporters found it increasingly difficult to explain to their constituents why anybody should back the legislation.

Among other things, S. 744 promised a "legalization" that would consign immigrants to second-class status for more than a decade at least. Under this temporary status, there would still be multiple opportunities for deportation. The bill also stepped up "border security" and called for implementation of a universal "E-verify" system to snare the undocumented. And whole groups of immigrants were excluded from multiple government benefits (for a detailed analysis, see this article by Justin Akers Chacón).

Despite all of the shortcomings of S. 744, support for the so-called comprehensive approach to immigration reform--which essentially means pairing "border security" with a "path to citizenship"--is dominant within the immigrant rights movement.

Leading liberal and labor groups tied to Democratic Party, as well as churches, support this strategy. And so does big business, because it will be a clear winner from the deal being discussed in Congress today. These forces hold a "reform no matter what the cost" position.

Supporters of CIR managed to out-mobilize the right during the August congressional recess. They won more than two dozen Republicans to support a "path to citizenship" as part of an immigration reform bill.

CIR supporters are also preparing for a big national push for reform in October, with actions planned for more than 60 cities around the country on October 5. On October 8, hundreds are expected to get arrested in a civil disobedience blockade of the Congress. The mobilizations will continue in Chicago, the epicenter of the immigrant rights movement that erupted in 2006-07, with a Great March for Immigration Reform with Dignity and Respect and an End to Deportations on October 12.

The main demand of CIR forces is for the Republicans to put immigration reform to a vote on the House floor. But now that the Gang of Seven has disbanded, S. 744 is the only thing to be voted on. CIR's advocates say there are enough votes in the House to pass the legislation. But this begs the question: If S. 744 is the "best we can get," is that good enough? Will CIR end up cementing in place restrictive and repressive laws that the mega-marches of 2006-07 defeated when the Republicans were pushing them?

The immigrant rights mobilizations convinced big business that it could only get what it wanted--"guest worker" programs expanded throughout the economy--if it supported some form of legalization for the undocumented, preferably highly restricted.

Even though Corporate America has been clear in its general support, the troglodytes in its usual go-to party, the Republicans, won't even allow that. As this article was being written, there are fewer than 30 days left when Congress is in session this year, and the swelling agenda--from the GOP crusade to "defund Obamacare" to the federal budget to a potential war with Syria--is filling up the agenda. Immigration reform is being pushed to the bottom of the stack of priorities.

But while the Grand Old Party has failed big business, the corporations can always count on, as author Kevin Phillips put it, "history's second-most enthusiastic capitalist party": the Democrats.

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AT THE time S. 744 passed, many undocumented immigrants--those who didn't fit into big business' preferred categories--were disappointed, but not surprised. They turned to struggle again because they knew if a proposal like S. 744 was enacted, they would be the losers.

As the legislators were packing their bags in July for their not-at-all-deserved vacations, nine undocumented youth--six of whom had been deported and three of whom had traveled to Mexico to return with the six--re-entered the United States at Nogales, Ariz., in an act of civil disobedience.

The nine demanded that the Obama administration allow them to return to their homes. After weeks of tireless activism, they won their demand. The National Immigrant Youth Alliance organized a nationwide week of actions to highlight the issues of deportations and family reunification.

During the first two weeks of August, 14 undocumented transplant patients and their families went on hunger strike in Chicago to demand from area hospitals the medical attention they had been denied for lack of a Social Security number or health insurance coverage. One of the strikers later died. While the GOP continued to try to defund Obama's health care law for everyone, these immigrants reminded the world that it was already "defunded" for them.

Early in September, a group of Jamaican guest workers marched on the Edgewater Beach Resort in Panama City, Fla., to expose the "brutal housing conditions, zero-dollar checks and written threats that they would be deported by immigration police in retaliation for speaking out against the abuse" that employers at Mister Clean Laundry and Cleaning Service subjected them to. They also asked Florida Republican Reps. Jeff Miller and Steve Southerland to return money that these companies have contributed to their campaigns.

African and LGBT immigrants came together on September 3 to strategize a way forward for their communities because the proposed immigration legislation restricts diversity in who can emigrate to the U.S. and doesn't include the Uniting American Families Act that would allow U.S. citizens to sponsor their non-citizen partners for residency. And on September 7, 90 immigrant rights activists met in Chicago to discuss how to move forward after CIR "threw under the bus" many undocumented immigrants--including those caught in the U.S. criminal injustice system.

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PRESSURE FROM the struggle--as well as the evidence of just how bad many provisions of the bill are--have pushed many immigrant groups and individuals to curtail their support for S. 744. Some groups opposed it outright. Many others, without openly opposing it, started to distance themselves from so-called comprehensive immigration reform.

The Dignity Campaign, a coalition of grassroots immigrant rights groups and other organizations, authored a statement opposing the bill that urged progressive Democrats to vote against it if it does get to the House floor. It also put forward a plan for a just reform--one opposing guest worker programs, militarization of the border and criminalizing the undocumented.

Other groups, especially those involving organized undocumented activists, preferred to minimize their criticism of S. 744 in solidarity with those still fighting for it. The Immigrant Youth Justice League, for example, declared it would not support the Senate bill and dedicated all its energies to the fight against deportations. The National Youth Immigration Association focused on family reunification by organizing the action in Nogales of undocumented youth re-entering the U.S.

Likewise, Chicago Community and Workers Rights stated that S. 744 was not the reform it would fight for. But the group also announced it would still attend events in support of immigration reform, carrying its own banners and slogans, specifically around stopping deportations.

The way forward for a movement for real justice for undocumented immigrants has been put forward all along by activists themselves when they have challenged President Obama and the federal government, demanding relief. They have won important victories this way. Just last year, activism pressured Obama to declare a halt to deportations of immigrant youth.

Obama's recent decision not to extend this halt of deportations to the parents of immigrant youth is an attempt to pressure undocumented activists to get in line with CIR, despite the fact that it is increasingly unlikely to pass Congress.

Meanwhile, more and more activists are realizing that CIR won't deliver justice--and that they will have to struggle for it instead. "There are groups that are for immigration reform no matter what," Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, told the National Journal. "Then there are groups like us...We have the other track. The other track is Barack Obama." This strategy envisions activists pushing the administration to "freeze" the undocumented population through an administrative order stopping deportations and then issuing work permits.

It seems that the movement for not just reform, but justice, will have another shot. With the prospects for CIR legislation vanishing and elections certain to take hold of politics next year, there is a window of opportunity for newly united forces to demand action from Obama--even including some form of amnesty by executive order.

To have a real chance of success, this struggle will have to become part of a struggle for all workers, not just for the undocumented.