Who will benefit from “immigration reform”?

August 5, 2013

The U.S. House is working on its version of immigration reform legislation, but questions remain: Will Congress deliver justice to the undocumented? And who stands to benefit? Orlando Sepúlveda explains.

AUGUST IS here and Congress is about to recess, and still there's no immigration reform bill. But judging from the proposals that have been considered, that may not necessarily be a bad thing. But what's really galling is that while congressmembers rush to their vacations, 11 million undocumented immigrants and their families remain in limbo.

For those who support bringing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and giving them the right to choose to become U.S. citizens, the year began auspiciously. The anti-immigrant GOP were reeling from defeat in the November elections, and the media--and even some top Republicans--took note of the massive Latino and Asian vote for the Democrats.

The election result represented not only a rejection of the racism of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and the right, but also it showed that more than seven years of activism by workers and undocumented youth have made major inroads in public opinion.

In March, a Brookings Institution survey showed that 63 percent of Americans support a "path to citizenship" for the undocumented. In April, CNN/ORC International found that 84 percent support a program of legalization. More recently, the conservative pollster Jon Lerner found that 70 percent of Republicans support an immigration reform (albeit draconian) that includes legalization.

Immigrant rights activists marching on Washington in April
Immigrant rights activists marching on Washington in April (David Sachs)

Given this favorable setting, three dissimilar interest groups lined up to push for comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. Senate. The first of these was the mobilized base of undocumented immigrants, their families, and solidarity groups among religious and labor organizations, among others. The primary aim of this group is to bring relief to millions of families by bringing them out of the legal shadows, stopping deportations, and reforming immigration law to encourage family unification and respect for labor and human rights.

Other pro-immigrant organizations, especially those committed to the Democratic Party, share many of these goals. But at the same time, they are willing to accept concessions to business and the "border security" lobbies in order to win comprehensive immigration reform.

The second major group pushing for comprehensive immigration reform is big business, which, of course has the greatest influence in Washington. Business wants to restructure the labor market to make U.S. industry more competitive in the global economy. Its objective is to drive down the cost of labor through "guest worker" programs and other forms of labor control.

Finally, there is the parasitical "border-security industrial complex" of military, penal and security contractors. These firms have benefitted from the corrosive and racist debate that has dominated discussion of immigration. They hope to navigate between the demands of the undocumented and of the bosses to provide more detention centers, biomarker technology, and instruments of surveillance and death at the U.S.-Mexico border--even the cement to build whatever border wall the xenophobes demand.

THIS WAS the context when, at the end of June, the U.S. Senate passed S. 744, the "Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act." S. 744 is more or less an amalgam that reflects the demands of the three groups described above. (For a detailed account of what's in the bill, see Justin Akers Chacón's analysis.)

With few exceptions, S. 744 gave business and industry just about everything it asked for. According to Oscar Chacón, executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC), "The legislative agenda has been dominated by big business interests. That was certainly the case during the debates on health care and environmental laws in recent years, but it's also the case in the immigration reform the Senate passed."

The border security industry also got all that it asked for, and even won some more. At the last minute, supporters introduced an amendment to garner more Republican votes. As the New York Times explained, "Half a dozen major military contractors, including Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, are preparing for an unusual desert showdown here this summer, demonstrating their military-grade radar and long-range camera systems in an effort to secure a Homeland Security Department contract worth as much as $1 billion."

All the extras handed to the corporations were taken from the undocumented and their families. The most optimistic predictions about the Senate-approved legislation figure that only about 60 percent of the undocumented could be legalized.

What's more, writes Justin Akers Chacón, author of No One Is Illegal, "Millions of workers would be able to transition to a "legal" status--but it is very far from full or even partial citizenship. It can be better understood as a carefully crafted strategy to create a subclass of workers without rights, made perpetually vulnerable by an austere and rigid set of immigration rules and regulations."

THE TOTAL disregard for justice for immigrants that the Senate bill represents has led many pro-immigrant groups and solidarity organizations to come out against it. The list of Senate bill opponents grows every day, and can be tracked on the web site of the Mexican-American Political Association. Among others, the Campaign for Dignity, which brings together more than 50 community-based groups, describes the bill as "a corporate giveaway that will be a disaster for civil rights of immigrant communities."

In the legislative debate, the Democratic-led Senate bill is the "best" the undocumented can hope for. But this "best" exposes the Democratic Party as the best friend of American capitalism, but also the worst ally for undocumented immigrant workers.

From 2009-2011, the Democrats held both houses of Congress and Obama was in the White House. To say of that period that the Democrats did absolutely nothing for undocumented immigrants would be a lie. In fact, they did a lot to increase the suffering of immigrant families.

They ratcheted up deportations to record levels, while accepting all of the premises of the right's racist campaign against immigrants (for example, of assuring "border security" first). This year, after winning a strong electoral victory, with the GOP on the defensive, and with opinion polls indicating broad support for legalization, the Democrats are still committed to making unnecessary compromises.

Now it's the House's turn to act on immigration. And here is where the worst of institutionalized anti-immigrant racism will rear its head. House Speaker John Boehner has announced that the House will take up pieces of immigration reform in separate bills. In other words, first will come border security, the giveaways to industry second, and legalization will be left for last--if anyone is still interested in it. And Boehner has already invoked the "Hastert rule," which says no proposal will get a vote in the House unless it has the support of the majority of House Republicans.

But even the House Republicans are feeling pressure. Their opposition to immigration reform puts them at odds with the big business interests they represent. The White House, business organizations, national Republican leaders, and groups that support the Senate-passed bill are using all of their resources to pressure the House GOP, including the most recalcitrant.

To appear more reasonable--and in recognition that our side's position that immigration reform must include legalization has won the day--GOP lawmakers approved in committee a proposal to grant a path to citizenship to youths who arrived in the U.S. when they were children. But this vote shouldn't trick anyone into thinking that these bills will deliver justice.

Weeks earlier, many activists had already reconsidered whether they were going to win what they wanted in Congress. They refocused their efforts on stopping deportations and in supporting family reunification. This reflected a realization that even if immigration reform passes, it could create a system that's more perverse than the status quo.

Activists in the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) issued a "Declaration of Independence from Comprehensive Immigration Reform," pointing out that "we cannot support anything that will not give our parents what they worked decades for." They added, "It is out of respect for our community, and accountability to them, that we come out as strong advocates, not for the bills being discussed, but for the undocumented."

IN RECENT years, undocumented youth have been in the forefront of the struggle for dignity and justice for immigrants. They've challenged the most fundamental notions of what it means to be undocumented, especially when they began, in 2010, to come out of the shadows publicly. They have dared the authorities to arrest and deport them. They have said they will not live in fear anymore.

And today, while the Obama administration keeps up its record rate of deportation and Congress considers passing a substandard reform, young undocumented activists are stepping to the front again. They're challenging the fundamentals of the immigration system, and are trying to erase the border itself.

On June 22, six young activists who had already been deported, all of whom consider the U.S. their home, along with three undocumented youths from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), met at the port of entry into the U.S. at Nogales, Ariz. The six who had been deported demanded that they be permitted to return to their homes and families in the U.S.

Since then, all nine have been detained at the Eloy Detention Center, from which they are demanding that President Obama use his executive powers to allow them into the U.S. Meanwhile, NIYA has been organizing protests and mass call-ins to members of Congress, urging them to sign a letter of support for the "Dreamer 9," written by Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.).

Lizbeth Mateo, one of the Dreamer 9, said in a video recorded before their action, "[I understand] that this is crazy, but what's crazier is not being able to see my family for 15 years. I'm doing this not only for my family, but for the families of all of the 1.7 million deported under Obama. Imagine that. That's not only 1.7 million people deported, but 1.7 million families separated, like mine."

So while congressional members pack their bags, thousands of immigrants, plus the Dreamer 9, are locked up in detention centers. Not even they have hope that Congress, whatever it does on immigration reform, will deliver justice to the 11 million undocumented, their families and communities, who have helped to build and strengthen the country where they live, the United States.

But against this congressional apathy, and the open anti-immigrant contempt of a substantial part of its members, we have the inspiring example of undocumented activists and the commitment of many immigrant rights groups to speak out against the injustices in the congressional legislation.

All of them are urgently looking for new ways to work together, determined that the goal isn't immigration reform per se, but achieving justice and dignity.

Translation by Lance Selfa

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