THE ISSUE of immigration returned to center stage in national politics this week as a bipartisan team of eight senators presented an outline for comprehensive "reform" legislation on Monday--followed the next day by a major speech by President Barack Obama, in which he talked about priorities he would fight for if Congress failed to act.
The twin announcements were hailed as a breakthrough on an issue where Washington has accomplished nothing positive over the past decade, despite many promises and several legislative efforts. But even supporters of immigrant rights who are optimistic about the latest proposals acknowledge that they resemble the failed measures of past years in many ways.
Above all, the new initiatives share the same ugly logic of past legislation--that border enforcement must come first before even a highly restrictive "path to citizenship" can be introduced. The enforcement-first mantra was repeated by the team of eight senators--Charles Schumer, Dick Durbin, Robert Menendez and Michael Bennet for the Democrats, and John McCain, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake for the Republicans--as well as Barack Obama.
If political analysts believe immigration legislation stands a better chance of passing Congress this year, it's because of a steady tide of protest and activism for immigrant rights last year, especially by undocumented youth--followed by the big turnout by Latinos in the 2012 election, which provided Obama with his margin of victory.
As a result, prominent Republicans are supporting immigration legislation, with the argument that their party has to do something to try to win back sections of the Latino vote. But it's still possible that anti-immigrant House Republicans will block even these proposals--or at least eviscerate the aspects of the bill related to the "path to citizenship."
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THE MEDIA analysis of the proposals revolved so much around whether they have bipartisan support that few mainstream commentators recognized how they reinforce the worst aspects of existing federal immigration policy.
Obama, in his high-profile speech from Nevada, displayed the hypocrisy of the mainstream "reform" proposals when he described the "accomplishments" of his first term. Out of one side of his mouth, he defended draconian policies that have victimized millions, while out of the other, he gave lip service to the plight of the Dreamers and the hardships immigrants endure:
First, we strengthened security at the borders so that we could finally stem the tide of illegal immigrants. We put more boots on the ground on the Southern border than at any time in our history. And today, illegal crossings are down nearly 80 percent from their peak in 2000. Second, we focused our enforcement efforts on criminals who are here illegally and who endanger our communities. And today, deportation of criminals is at its highest level ever.And third, we took up the cause of the DREAMers--the young people who were brought to this country as children, young people who have grown up here, built their lives here, have futures here.
Actually, Obama only "took up the cause of the DREAMers" last summer. With an election looming and with activists holding sit-ins in his campaign offices around the country, Obama signed an executive order that implemented aspects of the DREAM Act for undocumented youth, though only temporarily.
But the president's description of his "accomplishments" did get the order right: Border security and deportation came before the DREAMers in his first four years, and they'll definitely dominate upcoming legislative proposals, too.
In fact, the Senate team's plan makes this explicit. Reportedly as a condition for gaining the support of the four Republicans, the senators' proposal would create a commission "comprised of governors, attorneys general and community leaders living along the Southwest border" to determine when the border is "secure." Only after this decision would a "path to citizenship" be implemented.
In other words, whether immigrants even get the chance to try to meet all the complicated conditions required for citizenship will depend on Southwestern political leaders like Jan Brewer, the anti-immigrant Arizona governor who happily enforced the SB 1070 racial profiling law.
Does anyone think Jan Brewer will ever say that the border is fully secure?
There's a wider question here: How can political leaders, whether Republican or Democrat, talk about border security as a necessary precondition for other measures when immigration policy under Barack Obama, like George W. Bush before him, has revolved around...border security?
This is another area where Obama, who promised in 2008 to change the direction of Washington politics, has actually outdone his Republican predecessor. The number of deportations carried out by the Obama administration has hit new records each year of his presidency, reaching nearly 410,000 in 2012.
That's more than 1,100 immigrants kicked out of the U.S. every single day--and 45 deported just in the time it took Obama to offer his immigration reform proposals on Tuesday, as author Jeff Biggers pointed out at CommonDreams.org. From Mexico, the net migration flow has stopped and probably reversed, according to statistics from the Pew Hispanic Center.
As the National Immigrant Youth Alliance said in a statement:
We cannot keep talking about immigrants as criminals. The President and the Senate have placed themselves in the irreconcilable position of trying to both criminalize immigrants and argue for a pathway to citizenship. The only way that immigration reform can be accomplished is if the president chooses to stop treating immigrants as criminals.
All the pompous rhetoric about securing our borders first is a smoke screen to obscure the corruption and waste of a multibillion-dollar immigration-security-enforcement complex that depends for its profits on border militarization.
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EVEN IF you set aside the enforcement provisions, the proposals being put forward around the legal status of the undocumented are deeply flawed. In both the Senate proposal and Obama's, the "path to citizenship" is filled with obstacles only a minority of people will be able to get past.
To start with, any undocumented immigrant already in the U.S. who wants to try for citizenship must pay a fine, back taxes and then go to the "back of the line" of those waiting for legal status. This is an insult to immigrants who have been working and living in this country for decades, contributing in taxes while receiving no representation at all--and facing criminalization instead.
U.S. immigration policy has always been shaped to meet the needs of Corporate America for different kinds of labor. A complicated system of quotas and preferences allows companies access to foreign-born workers with prized technical skills. Obama actually makes a virtue of this--by insisting that his "reform" measures would strengthen the U.S. economy by bringing the "best and brightest" to the U.S., instead of rivals such as China and India.
But the resulting system is a total nightmare, as one writer captured at a blog:
Each year, Congress decides on a quota of people to be admitted through a preference system. That system has two pools--visas for employment and visas for family members. These are further subdivided by category. Family has five categories and four levels of preference. Employment has eleven categories with five levels of preference. (There are special quotas for religious ministers, and another one for Iraqi or Afghan translators.)...In 2013, there will be up to 380,000 "quota" visas. So how many are on the waiting list worldwide? 4,412,693, meaning it would take over 11 years before the first green card under this proposal were granted. But it gets worse.No country is allowed to have more than 7 percent of the world quota. So in the case of Mexico, they will get up to 26,600 visas. And how big is the waiting list in Mexico? 1,316,118. Divide by 26,600 immigrant visas a year and you get 49.47 years--as close to half a century as makes no difference before the first green card would be offered under this proposal.
The coming weeks and months of discussion about immigration legislation will bring to light more injustices. The new proposals, for example, would expand the E-verify program that allows employers to check the immigration status of their workers, as well as Secure Communities, which victimizes immigrants detained by local police.
But it's already clear that Washington's idea of immigration "reform" in 2013 isn't very different--and certainly no more just--than what we saw in the past.
Something else is clear, too. Bold protests by immigrant youth last summer forced Obama's hand, leading to the executive order implementing aspects of the DREAM Act. We'll need the same kind of activism to force a change in the pro-business priorities for immigration legislation--and to win a proposal that's worthy of the term "reform."