A cease-fire in the war on the undocumented?

November 26, 2014

Justin Akers Chacón, author of No One is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border, analyzes the president's executive action on immigration.

BARACK OBAMA'S recent executive order halting deportations for as many as 5 million people is a welcomed reprieve--much as a cease-fire is naturally welcomed by people subjected to military air strikes.

War is an appropriate analogy to characterize immigration policy in the U.S. The last decade has witnessed the merging of immigration policy with national security doctrine; a massive infrastructural buildup along the Southern border over the past decade; and the rapid expansion of militarized enforcement, both personnel and projects, throughout the interior of the country.

Those not ensnared in the enforcement apparatus live and work in constant fear, depressing the hope and confidence that, less than 10 years ago, inspired millions of undocumented immigrants to stand up for progressive reform. The wave of repression that began under George W. Bush and Republican dominance in Congress has continued under Barack Obama and the Democrats' now-vanished congressional majority.

The Democrats have insisted on a bipartisan approach to developing immigration legislation. As a result, the Republicans have been able to push enforcement-heavy measures with the approval of the Democrats--while successfully blocking even compromised legalization provisions. When the resulting "bipartisan" agreement ultimately tanks, the Obama administration and the Democrats regroup and further incorporate Republican-inspired, enforcement-heavy provisions into their own efforts.

President Obama announces executive action on immigration in a televised speech
President Obama announces executive action on immigration in a televised speech

The defeat and disillusionment felt with each successive failure of reform legislation, accompanied by the severe impact of harsher enforcement, is the context for understanding why many welcome any curtailment of the overgrown deportation state.

With this order, Obama and the Democrats will position themselves as defenders of immigrants--despite having overseen the deportation of more than 2 million undocumented, far more than Obama's Republican predecessors.

The legacy of the Democrats is one of a long trail of betrayals over the last six years, and this executive order, despite the rhetoric that accompanied it and the opposition of Republicans, is not a departure. The content of the executive order and the context for its announcement show how right-wing and pro-corporate interests within both parties have driven immigration policy from the start--and will continue to do so under Obama's action.


OBAMA'S FIRST point in his televised speech on November 27 was to emphasize the need to increase spending on "enforcement," including the allocation of more funds for border militarization, internal apprehension and faster deportation. This reflects how the Democrats have absorbed the Republican argument that any "reform" must increase criminalization and "security."

Over the last six years, the administration has consistently ramped up its own efforts in this regard. They include expanding the E-verify program, which helps employers to target and fire undocumented workers, and Secure Communities, which allows for increased collaboration between federal agents and local law enforcement.

From the time that Obama called for immigration reform at the start of his presidency, enforcement has always been the main focus of administration action on immigration, whatever the rhetoric. An average of 1,100 people have been deported each day under the Obama administration, and a further 34,000 have been locked up daily in detention centers, as of the end of 2013.

A massive redirection of federal funds toward the two primary immigration enforcement agencies--U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement--began under Bush and continued under Obama. Spending on immigration and border enforcement increased from $5 billion in 2000 to more than $18 billion annually under Obama.

After six years of the Obama administration, we have seen most aspects of the right-wing Republican and Tea Party approaches to immigration become mainstreamed through Democratic Party policy. This includes the once-fringe idea of "attrition through enforcement"--which includes increased repression of immigrants through workplace raids, community sweeps, border and residential checkpoints, E-Verify and Social Security audits, and ICE-police collaboration.

This federal action has provided fertile ground for the growth and legitimization of vigilante groups whose sole objective is to terrorize immigrant communities.

So immigration policy under Obama has become synonymous with the state arresting, incarcerating and/or deporting millions of undocumented people, even if they have lived, worked and attended school in this country for much of their lives.

The trends will continue under Obama's action. The new executive order calls for doubling the current number of Border Patrol agents from 20,000 to 40,000, something the Republicans have insisted on in the immigration debate. Obama also reaffirmed mandatory detention for all classifications of "deportable" immigrants, and his order maintains or expands existing internal enforcement regimes targeting immigrants within their communities.

In his speech, Obama claimed his administration has had success in pursuing "criminals" among immigrants, rather than "hardworking families." Playing up this right-wing theme of "good" versus "bad" immigrant, the president stressed the need to crack down on immigrant gang members, terrorists and felons. This rhetoric not only shows how Obama has co-opted the far-right's racist attempt to paint all immigrants as a potential threat, but it shows the problem with how "criminals" are defined.

The most recent data from the TRAC Immigration Project at Syracuse University shows that the highest proportion of those detained and deported have been charged only with immigration-related violations. This includes people who entered the U.S. without authorization, who received a deportation order for a non-criminal offense, who were caught using fake work documents, and so on.

While law enforcement officials are encouraged to use "discretion" in prioritizing immigrants to detain, in reality, there is no oversight for this--which explains why "non-criminal" offenders continue to be the largest segment of the deported.

In other words, working people who committed no actual crime other than to continue to work and live in the U.S. remain the category of immigrant most targeted for deportation.


OBAMA'S ORDER does significantly expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to all childhood arrivals who were brought to the U.S. before the age of 16 and who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, having arrived no later than the start of 2010.

The DACA program temporarily exempts qualified participants from existing enforcement mechanisms leading to detention and deportation. Those seeking "suspended" status must apply to the Department of Homeland Security, which will judge the requests on a case-by-case basis. If granted, the deferral will last for three years and must be renewed. Participants are required to work, pay taxes and not be charged with a crime.

The Obama order also creates a deferred action program for parents of U.S. citizen children and legal permanent resident children born before November 20, 2014. The parents must have lived in the U.S. for at least five years and not have criminal records.

While this measure eases some provisions relating to family-based legalization, it excludes parents with children currently under a DACA waiver and would completely exclude people without children.

As Obama himself stressed repeatedly, the program doesn't confer legal residency or a path to citizenship, however twisted--nor would those who win deferred action have access to social services or benefits.

As he explained in his speech, Obama has delivered a program that serves the needs of the economy above all--"as so many business leaders have proposed," he pointed out. This order is a handcrafted proposal to serve the labor procurement requirements of U.S. capitalism. It is a reimplementation by decree of the discredited guest-worker system known as the bracero program, only there is no legalization provision at the end.

Obama's measures expand visas for "high-tech workers," something big business has been keen on for some time--but the president isn't in any way extending rights for immigrants as workers.

The workforce created under Obama's action will be an at-will, captive labor force, with no right to join a union, vote or otherwise participate meaningfully in social or political affairs. These new workers will need to stay employed, keep their heads down and walk a fine line to maintain their eligibility.


PRESUMABLY, THE exclusions and restrictions that litter Obama's proposals were implemented to assuage the same anti-immigrant segments of society that have already demonstrated again and again their opposition to any action on immigration. Plus, the administration is further assuring business interests that they will gain access to their "temporary," non-citizen workers without having to concede rights or benefits to them.

As a result, Obama's order ensures that working immigrant families will remain poor, dependent on low-wage jobs, and unable to accumulate enough savings to access higher education or the resources needed to better their social position.

Like the previous failures of immigration legislation over the last six years--where criminalization has more and more replaced even compromised provisions for legalization--the limitations of this executive order will likely become normalized as federal policy into the foreseeable future.

Obama and the Democrats are trying to spin the administration action into a victory for immigrants. But the day after Obama announced the executive order, an activist interrupted Obama's "victory" speech in Nevada to criticize his failure to include a path to citizenship. "Not everyone's going to qualify under this provision, that's the truth," Obama responded. "That's why we're still going to have to pass a bill."

To the millions of people who have been waiting and hoping for the Democrats to implement real reform, Obama's words will ring hollow. The Republicans who blocked any legislation on immigration that wasn't enforcement-only were able to capitalize on this among many other administration failures--the GOP now controls all of Congress, which makes the prospects of passing any legislation even more dismal.

Supporters of immigrant and workers' rights will need to redouble their efforts to build a struggle from below against the corporate and right-wing agenda that dominates in both parties. We won't give up on full citizenship and workers' rights for undocumented immigrants.

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