Why Immigrants Can’t Settle for Less


It took an entire term for President Obama to catch up with the majority of Americans (7 out of 10) who support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (Gallup, 2/5/13).

Policy makers are at least pretending to listen now because of one thing—pressure. Pressure because they can no longer dismiss public anger over Obama being on track to deport as many immigrants as all U.S. presidents in the last century combined (Huffington Post, 1/31/13), or over how frequently border patrol and “concerned citizens” gun down unarmed migrants crossing the border.

Pressure because the immigrant rights movement has resuscitated itself since the last time immigration reform was debated in Congress. Obama did not speak concretely about the issue until immigrant rights activists occupied his 2012 campaign offices in Denver, Oakland, and Detroit, some on hunger strike.

Pressure because Asians and Latinos (who are most affected by immigration policy) came out in record numbers during the last election, 7 out of 10 voting Democrat (scpr.org, 11/8/12). Democrats who support reforms will benefit politically in immigrant communities, as Republican leaders wake up to the smell of losing the increasingly influential people of color vote should they continue their reactionary approach.

Although policy makers from both sides can no longer evade these burning forces pushing them to act fast, the Obama-endorsed bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators tasked with formulating a reform plan can at least give reform a non-threatening, pro-corporate cast. This is why Obama and the Gang of Eight’s pillow-soft reforms will fall light years short of guaranteeing hard legal rights for immigrants.

Immigrant communities should reject the great temptation to settle for crumbs of reforms that our policy makers drop from their table. Instead, we must fight for bread.

New Reform Plan: More of the Same Old?

If passed, Obama’s plan will include one significant victory for immigrant LGBTQ people, by providing the same-sex partner of a citizen or permanent resident opportunities to earn a visa. Around 40,000 couples will immediately benefit (whitehouse.gov, 1/29/13). But beyond that, even the most pleasant-sounding provisions come with major strings attached.

The biggest condition of the reform plan is what Obama cynically calls “strengthening border security”. In fact, the “Gang of Eight” wants borders to be secured first, before any path to citizenship can be established. Because for some reason it’s not enough that Obama has already deployed drones and 1,200 National Guard troops there, doubled the number of Border Patrol agents since seven years ago, and spent $18 billion last year on border enforcement alone, exceeding the combined budgets of a number of major federal law enforcement agencies (Migration Policy Institute, 1/2013).

Obama also proposes to reign in employers who hire undocumented workers, namely through registration systems like E-Verify.

E-verify at face value looks like a program to protect undocumented workers from employer abuses, by fining employers who retain them. But in practice, it criminalizes undocumented workers, introduces more avenues for workplace discrimination and intimidation, turns workers in for deportation, and not to mention strips them of their job.

There is an elemental connection between immigrant rights and worker rights. Many immigrants have jobs in domestic and farm work – areas often excluded from labor protections. Undocumented workers are more likely to face wage theft, abuse, and injury on the job; are more likely to work while injured or sick; and are more often asked to do extra or heavier work.

Their low wages and poor working conditions produce equivalently abysmal living conditions. Undocumented immigrants spend more of their income on housing than U.S.-born workers, and are more likely to struggle to pay essential bills (The Nation, 1/29/13).

The reform proposal will further erode living standards by barring those who are undocumented from receiving public services, even if they get taxes and social security deducted from their paychecks (Huffington Post, 1/28/13).

Another component of the proposal resembles a game of hoop-jumping, likely to result in a broken leg. Those who seek legal status must pay steep fines and “back taxes”, pass a civics exam and a background check, prove long-term employment, and learn English. Even if you manage to clear all the hoops, you have to go to the back of the line, and possibly stand there for 20 years (NY Daily News, 1/30/13).

The end piece of Obama and the Gang of Eight’s plan reminisces past exploitative “guest worker” programs, where the government hands out work visas to immigrants with no promise of the citizenship upgrade. This means companies can profit en-masse off the influxes of cheap, non-union labor, freed from that scary prospect of worker revolt because workers are silenced by the threat of getting their visas revoked.

From Pillow-Soft Reforms To Hard Legal Rights

We cannot accept immigration policy that will protect profits first and foremost, while leaving 11 million undocumented people as an afterthought.

What’s needed immediately is exactly the reform that Obama refuses to implement—a moratorium on all deportations. When the entire immigrant segment of the working class is silenced by the looming threat of deportation, native-born workers will also find it difficult to wage opposition battles against union busting, budget cuts, and privatization. All workers will benefit from a permanent moratorium on deportations.

In addition, although the administration claims to target “criminals” for deportation, in practice only 14 to 17% of deportees have criminal records (Mother Jones, 5/8/12).

Half of those imprisoned each year languish in private detention centers, sometimes for decades. These prisons are largely owned by only three companies that receive subsidies and contracts worth billions of dollars from the federal government (Rolling Stone, 2/22/13). These companies in turn have spent $45 million over the last decade lobbying Washington (CBS News, 8/2/12), which explains why the immigrant-detention-industry complex continues to spread virally, even though illegal immigration has dropped in recent years. Thus, halting deportations and dissolving immigrant detention centers are a package deal.

Real change for immigrants also requires a look at the underlying economic propellers of migration. Structural adjustment programs and free trade agreements like NAFTA have greatly enriched the U.S. corporations that lobbied former Presidents Clinton and Bush to pass the agreements, while wreaking unbelievable havoc throughout Latin America and indeed most areas outside of the Western world.

Because of its commitments to NAFTA, Mexico eliminated subsidies to its farmers, dismantled its communal farms, and opened its economy to an invasion of U.S.-owned sweatshops and products so that its farmers could no longer compete. Losing precious agricultural jobs, many were forced to flee to the U.S. and find whatever precarious work they could.

This points to a major contradiction in the system of capitalism. While recognizing a globalizing economy, capitalism does not recognize political, human, and union rights for a globalizing work force. The entire free trade paradigm is incompatible with justice for immigrants and for all workers.

We as socialists and those dedicated to the immigrant rights movement must conceive ourselves as part of interconnected global movements for worker’s rights, racial equality, and economic justice.

Remarkable solidarity does exist among the working class. One immediate measure is the 2012 election exit polls, which revealed Black-Americans supported legalization in the highest numbers (81%), even more than Latinos (77%)! (Washington Post, 11/9/12)

But when unemployment is sky high, it’s easier for capitalist interests to generate tension among the working class, advancing the misleading idea that immigrants will take whatever little jobs do exist, and at wages that undermine the rest of us.

We can fight their divide and conquer strategy by demanding government investment in a public works program. All unemployed workers, regardless of immigration status, can be put back to work at a living wage to build and operate high-speed railways, construct environmentally sustainable low-income housing, and clean up trashed parks and rivers.

Working-class movements of all shapes and flavors, in a unified voice, must demand full legal rights for all undocumented immigrants. Temporary work visas won’t cut it. Neither will undefined “pathways to citizenship”. Full legal rights means immigrants with and without documents should be able to organize unions, access all social programs, and challenge illegal arrests and search and seizures in the courts, without having to pay any fines or pass any tests.

Obama has failed to match the courage demonstrated by immigrant rights activists, proving to us we can’t wait around for him or his party. We must rely on our own collective power. This will take more protest movements! More occupations! More sit-ins! Immigrant workers go on strike! We need colossal marches on May 1st like the ones in 2006, no matter who is in office. Let us not surrender our justice movements to feeble White House reforms.