Putting politics ahead of immigrants’ lives

March 4, 2015

The new Republican Congress is trying to score points with its base by bashing immigrants--which has allowed Barack Obama to pose as something he's not.

BARACK OBAMA'S executive orders halting the threat of deportations for some 5 million undocumented immigrants offered a moment of hope for people who live every day in fear of arrest and detention, and millions more who fear their loved ones will be stolen away by immigration authorities.

So naturally, it wasn't long before Republicans took this modest act and turned it into a conservative cause célèbre to bash immigrants.

Members of Congress have been embroiled for days in a battle over a measure to reverse the executive orders, which House Republicans attached to a vote on funding the Department of Homeland Security. The stalemate threatened a mini-government shutdown. On Tuesday, though, House Speaker John Boehner announced that the House would vote on a bill without the restrictions on funding for Obama's executive action.

Democratic Party presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton had already got in the mix, calling Obama's orders "historic" and a reasonable reaction to Republican inaction on the issue. You could almost hear her preparing a 2016 campaign speech, where she will claim that only a vote for her stands between immigrants and an immigrant-bashing Republican in the White House.

A section of the border wall in Nogales, Ariz., with crosses to memorialize people who died attempting to cross
A section of the border wall in Nogales, Ariz., with crosses to memorialize people who died attempting to cross (Eric Ruder | SW)

Millions of people will be swayed by this argument out of fear of the Republican reactionaries--the same reason that Barack Obama, whose administration has deported more people than any in history, is viewed as a lesser evil compared to the GOP.

But the focus on the differences that make the Republicans the greater evil obscures many facts--that the two parties agree on much more than they disagree, that the attack on immigrants has been a bipartisan assault, and that both Democrats and Republicans put a priority not on the well-being of millions of working people and their families, but on making sure the needs of Corporate America get met.

LAST MONTH, a federal judge ordered Obama's executive action put on hold--honoring a request for an injunction in a lawsuit filed by 26 state governments, led by Texas and made up mostly of conservative states in the South and Midwest. Then the Republican Congress got in the act, threatening a mini-shutdown unless legislation funding the Department of Homeland Security contained provision overturning the executive orders.

So it's no wonder that millions of people who want to stop the deportation machine are directing their anger at Republicans. But it's worth going back over the realities of Obama's immigration policy.

Set aside the fact that Obama dragged his feet on issuing the executive order halting deportations, waiting until after the November 2014 midterm elections at the request of conservative Democrats. The other thing to remember is that Obama's executive action reinforces some of the same border and law enforcement policies that immigrant rights activists have been criticizing.

As Justin Akers Chacón wrote in Socialist Worker last year:

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.

While Obama's series of orders represent a relaxation of the record pace of deportations, they also relegate more people to the threat of arrest and detention by expanding law enforcement and "border security," increasing the number of Border Patrol agents, and continuing the mandatory detention of so-called "deportable" immigrants. The administration also plans to expand the number of privately run prisons for immigrants.

Also contained in the orders is a path to greater exploitation of immigrant labor--documented and undocumented. Some immigrant workers will get better treatment than others. If Silicon Valley deems your work necessary, you might get a work visa--and keep the tech industry's labor costs down in the process. If your work isn't considered "valuable" enough to be considered for one of the work visas that the administration's plan offers, then you work in the shadows, under constant threat of harassment.

The effects of increased law enforcement and law-and-order border policies on immigrant workers and their families are being revealed every day. In January, the Guardian reported on temporary holding cells in Texas, where people captured while trying to cross into the U.S. are kept in cold, concrete rooms, without furniture and lit by neon lights 24 hours a day, with just a sheet for warmth. One detainee, Carla, was just 7 years old. She languished at the border station for 15 days.

Meanwhile, federal immigration policies under Obama have also sent a message to local law enforcement that they can harass and brutalize immigrants with impunity--and not only in places near the border with Mexico.

This was illustrated most recently in Pasco, Washington, with the murder of an unarmed immigrant farmworker by police, who fired 17 shots after he threw a rock in the street. In Pasco, where Latinos are a majority of the population, the food-processing industry relies on immigrant labor to pick fruit and vegetables and work at the processing plants--and it relies on police to harass and intimidate them.

Pasco has a population of just 60,000 people--but five people have been killed by police in the last seven months. The gross injustice of Antonio Zambrano-Montes' murder--and its similarities to the police murder of Black teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri--sparked protests that shut down major thoroughfares, and finally gave expression to the anger at police racism directed at immigrant workers.

THE OBAMA administration's immigration policy is par for the course from the Democrats.

President Bill Clinton followed a similar path during his administration, promising more tolerant policies on "asylum" on the one hand, while increasing border enforcement on the other.

During the 1992 election campaign, Clinton promised he would end the policy of returning fleeing refugees to Haiti, where they faced persecution following the coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Once in office, however, Clinton's policy followed his Republican predecessor, George Bush Sr. Asylum seekers were required to go to U.S. consulate offices to apply--clearly impossible for impoverished Haitians boarding rafts in the desperate hope of finding refuge in the U.S.

Clinton's 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act increased militarization at the Mexico-U.S. border. Deaths among border-crossers rose as migrants were forced into more dangerous and deadly terrain.

During that era, Democrats joined Republicans in supporting anti-immigrant proposals such as mandatory ID cards, requiring schools and hospitals to report the immigration status of patients and students, and cutting off undocumented immigrants from public services, including public education.

At the same time, the Clinton administration backed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The result was cheaper U.S. imports flooding into Mexico, which threw millions of people out of work or off the land they farmed. Today, the Obama administration is promising more free trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The Clinton years showed that even when the "pro-immigrant" party was in charge, immigrants couldn't necessarily tell the difference--and that U.S. immigration policy is, first and foremost, shaped and reshaped by U.S. foreign policy interests and the needs of Corporate America.

Despite all its stalling and sellouts, the Obama administration is mostly viewed as immigrants' best chance for justice. But there is a definite undercurrent of suspicion and even outright protest.

Frank Sharry, head of the immigration reform group America's Voice, told the Atlantic last fall that he believed Obama would act on immigration--but many others didn't. "[W]hat I hear in the street is, 'He's a liar. We elected him, and he's given us nothing but deportations,'" Sharry said. "There's going to be a lot of activists--the next generation of leaders of the Latino community--who are never going to forget that Democrats found them inconvenient."

In February, prisoners--many of them undocumented immigrants--rioted and temporarily took over an immigrant detention center in Raymondville, Texas, that has become infamous for its mistreatment of inmates. The inmates were protesting their complete lack of rights, from delays in medical care to interference when they tried to meet with their lawyers.

All workers deserve the right to travel across any border, from any country to another, for any reason. They should also have the right to make a living in the country they call home, and not be forced to migrate in desperation because of U.S.-sponsored economic policies that stack the deck against workers in all countries.

It's clear that Obama's executive orders on immigration don't go far enough--but the problem isn't Republican obstructionism. The problem is that the interests of Corporate America come ahead of immigrant lives.

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