A comprehensive lie to immigrants

March 15, 2016

The Democrats are seen as the pro-immigrant party--but disgust with the bigotry of Republicans shouldn't blind anyone to the injustices they commit, writes Danny Katch.

THE BERNIE Sanders campaign is generating new enthusiasm among millions of supporters, including Latino voters.

The day after he shocked pundits and analysts by winning the Michigan presidential primary, Sanders received a standing ovation from a largely Latino audience at a Miami candidates' debate sponsored by Univision. That was followed two days later by "Bernie" chants ringing out from a multiracial crowd of protesters in Chicago after they forced the cancellation of a Donald Trump rally.

Sanders is showing that he has staying power in the Democratic presidential race--and proving wrong the cynical claims of Clinton supporters that a socialist can only attract white supporters. That's important not only for Sanders' election chances, but for all who believe that a multiracial socialist movement needs to be forged in the coming years.

There's a lot to be genuinely excited about--but it's also important that we keep our eyes open for bullshit, which is unfortunately what both Sanders and Clinton delivered by the shovelful at the Miami debate.

Marching for an end to deportations in Chicago
Marching for an end to deportations in Chicago (Bob Simpson)

When Univision moderator Jorge Ramos asked both candidates whether they would promise not to deport children, Clinton danced around the question before Ramos finally cornered her into making the pledge. Sanders gave a more straightforward "yes." Yet neither claim is believable.

Sanders and Clinton also both promised Lucia Aquiette, a woman from Guatemala with five children who lost their father when he was deported three years ago, that they would do everything they could to reunite families. If only that were true.

Pointing at a candidate and saying, "Liar! Liar!" isn't normally a form of political criticism I'd recommend--although it obviously works well for certain Republican frontrunners. It may seem particularly unfair to Sanders, who has a reputation for sincerity--whereas Clinton has such a strained relationship with the truth that next week, she might claim to have co-founded ACT-UP with Nancy Reagan.

But calling Sanders and Clinton full of it when it comes to immigration isn't character assassination, but objective analysis. Both candidates simultaneously promise to stop deportations and fight for "comprehensive immigration reform"--the exact same Obama administration policy goal that has led to the historic crime of mass deportations that the Economist has called "The Great Expulsion."

Sanders and Clinton can both talk all they want about ending the imprisonment of immigrant families and stopping the deportation of refugee children. As long as they pledge allegiance to "comprehensive immigration reform," they might as well be promising to end civilian casualties while calling for more drone strikes.

IN THIS election year, of course, it's not Democrats who are doing most of the talking about immigration. Donald Trump defined his candidacy from the very first day by calling migrants from Mexico "rapists," and vicious xenophobia has been a key ingredient in the Republican race ever since.

In the context of Republican nativism run amok, it might seem like nitpicking to go after the inadequacies of the Democrats' immigration platform. But in fact, it's the logic of "comprehensive immigration reform" that connects the two seeming opposites. Over the past 10 years, the Democrats have ventured further and further to the right in order to seek an elusive deal with Republicans who have no interest in making one.

Comprehensive immigration reform--let's call it CIR from here on--is meant to be a compromise framework that gives long-term residents without a felony record a "path to citizenship," while at the same time increasing border security and deportations for recent arrivals and those with criminal records.

CIR is a reasonable-sounding name for what is, in fact, a cruel lie--three cynical words that hide an enormous machinery of injustice, much as "separate but equal" did a century ago.

It's in the name of working toward CIR that over 2.5 million people have been forced out of the country by the Obama administration. That's 25 percent more than were expelled by George W. Bush--and, shockingly, more than the total number of people deported in the entire 20th century, a large swath of U.S. history that featured many anti-immigrant hysterias and mass expulsions.

The Applied Research Center found that in the first six months of 2011 alone, "the federal government removed more than 46,000 mothers and fathers of U.S.-citizen children." According to the Migration Policy Institute, between 2009 and 2013, a half million parents were taken away from their families.

Obama's justification for becoming the Deporter-in-Chief is that he has needed to prove that Democrats are "serious" about enforcement--thereby encouraging Republicans to get equally serious about accepting the "path to citizenship."

Not surprisingly to anyone who has ever negotiated anything, the result has been the opposite. Republicans, who are getting more deportations without having to give anything up, have been content to absurdly repeat that Obama isn't serious about enforcement--a horrific insult on top of the injury of mass deportations.

BUT THE main problem with CIR isn't Republican intransigence. The entire framework is rigged.

To begin with, the division of immigrants into "good" and "bad" categories based on whether they have a criminal history is absurd. This is a country with such an out-of-control criminal justice system that nearly one-third of its adults are thought to have a police record.

Not only that, but as the Economist explained, the immigration law of 1986 essentially criminalizes being undocumented:

That law reclassified several misdemeanors as "aggravated felonies" if they were committed by an illegal immigrant, lowering the legal barriers to deportation. The expanded list included stumbles that undocumented migrants are quite likely to make, such as failing to appear in court or having fake papers. It also removed time limits on these offences, so that crimes committed by teenagers could lead to deportation 20 years later.

So it sounds great for Democrats to promise that immigrants without felonies won't be deported, but most of the immigrants who have felonies only have felonies because they are immigrants.

Are you starting to get the picture of the absurdities of CIR? Wait, there's so much more.

THE "PATH to citizenship" is more like a road to nowhere, a long march that forces undocumented immigrants to go "to the back of the line" of a system in which many have to wait up to 24 years to get green cards. Along the way are many roadblocks, from fines that may be unaffordable to proving they have been steadily employed--in a country where layoffs and temporary work are becoming the norm for all workers, not to mention those who are undocumented.

And here's the kicker. According to the latest CIR bill in 2013--supported by both Clinton and Sanders--this endless "path to citizenship" wouldn't even begin until the enforcement provisions are deemed to be complete--by a bipartisan committee which would of course include Republicans who will never think that the border is "secure."

This is the comprehensive immigration reform that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders put forward to Lucia Aquiette as their plan to reunite her family. Is it wrong to say they were lying?

One more thing: CIR only addresses immigrants already in the U.S. In an era in which warfare, climate change and economic crises are creating the largest levels of global migrations since the Second World War, "comprehensive immigration reform" has nothing to say about those coming today and tomorrow. As Indigo Montoya might say, I do not think comprehensive means what they think it means.

It is the Obama administration's decision to deport the most vulnerable of these current immigrants--children fleeing horrific violence in Central America--that has been most strongly condemned by activists, as well as Sanders and Clinton (the latter only after doing her usual U-turn in the face of outrage from the Democratic base.)

These kids aren't covered by CIR, but they're still getting screwed by it: The Obama administration has ditched international standards of refugee law in favor of kangaroo courts and quickie deportations, in part due to its continued hope that Republicans will come around and negotiate CIR if the president makes it clear he is keeping the border "secured" from desperate children and their mothers.

BUT LET'S not fall into the lazy narrative of evil Republicans pushing around spineless Democrats. Underneath all of the false promises and internal inconsistencies, CIR rests on a pair of degrading assumptions about undocumented immigrants that are shared by both parties.

First, that people who come to this country without papers because they can't endure decades of poverty and violence while they hope for the slim possibility of winning a visa have committed a crime for which they must be punished. Second, that they haven't already been punished, first by their harrowing journeys to get here and then by becoming super-exploited workers who contribute enormous wealth to the economy, while receiving precious few benefits and services in return.

This is the rotten foundation of comprehensive immigration reform--even before concession after concession is piled on to appease unappeasable Republican xenophobes. And it's because Obama adheres to these rotten ideas that he has kept the deportation machine humming even after negotiations with Republicans have broken down.

Pressure from activists eventually forced Obama to take executive actions temporarily protecting some groups of undocumented immigrants from deportation, which Justin Akers Chacón memorably compared in a SocialistWorker.org article to a cease-fire from relentless air strikes.

But while these executive actions, one of which has been held up in court, have been welcome, they are only meant to elevate some immigrants into a "limbo" status while the long wait for CIR goes on.

At a time when Donald Trump is the Republican presidential frontrunner and a right-wing candidate like Marco Rubio is dismissed by large parts of the GOP base precisely because he supported CIR in 2013, it makes no sense to talk about a bipartisan immigration bill.

But CIR continues to be a useful fiction for a Democratic Party that wants to keep Latino votes without fundamentally altering the system of mass deportations.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, Hillary Clinton is a stalwart champion of comprehensive immigration reform--she used the phrase no less than 11 times during the Miami debate. Sanders only mentioned CIR once--possibly because he had to spend most of his time parrying false Clinton accusations like the idea that he supported the Minutemen, a racist vigilante group.

Both candidates call for closing private detention centers and expanding Obama's executive actions, and Sanders says that while he supported the 2013 CIR bill, it "contained a series of compromises that should now be rejected," according to his campaign website.

Sanders' immigration platform, like his powerful campaign ad "Undocumented and Unafraid," reflects the influence of grassroots activists on his campaign. Which only makes the fact that he still calls for CIR more telling--not just about Sanders, but the state of the immigrant justice movement.

It has been striking to see the influence that Black Lives Matter activists have had on the Democratic race this year, with Clinton in particular being put on the defensive over her support for her husband's 1994 crime bill--which Sanders also voted for--and her infamous dehumanizing speech about "super-predators."

There should be similar anger about Obama's current immigration slogan that calls for the deportation of "felons not families"--a grotesque dehumanization of millions of immigrants with criminal records, the vast majority of whom have families that will be devastated by their deportation.

The fact that there isn't shows how weakened the immigrant rights movement has become, in part because of the repressive conditions of mass deportations, but also because many of the best-funded organizations have been sucked into supporting CIR, and all its additional concessions.

During the Miami debate, Clinton invoked some of these advocates to challenge Sanders' vote against the 2007 CIR bill that had a guest-worker program, which the Southern Poverty Law Center described as "close to slavery."

"I think it's very hard to make the case," Clinton said, "that Ted Kennedy, Barack Obama, me, La Raza, United Farmworkers, Dolores Huerta, leaders of the Latino community, would have supported a bill that actually promoted modern slavery."

You wouldn't think they would, but they did. You also wouldn't think that Barack Obama, a former professor of constitutional law, would create a deportation machine so contemptuous of the law that one of his senior Justice Department officials would claim that toddlers and preschoolers don't need lawyers at deportation hearings because they're old enough to be taught immigration law and represent themselves.

That's the kind of sick story you would hear from the darkest days of Jim Crow, and it's coming from an administration still supported by La Raza, Huerta and many others who have trailed behind the CIR race to the bottom.

The movement for immigrant justice needs to re-establish itself on a much stronger foundation than comprehensive immigration reform. It should be based on firm principles--no one is illegal, equality for all, people should have the same ability as jobs to move wherever they want in search of better opportunities--and then be determined to make those ideals a reality.

The Sanders campaign shows that millions are turning to socialism. For that word to mean anything in the 21st century, it has to include a call for a world without borders.

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