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Will Obama tackle US immigration mess?

Published:Sunday | April 25, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Demonstrators hold a United States flag at a protest at the Arizona state Capitol in Phoenix last Thursday against the controversial illegal immigration bill SB1070. - AP

Matthew Kopa, Contributor

WITH THE long-delayed health-care legislation by the Democrats in Congress last month, analysts began to speculate about what battles lay ahead in Washington. It has long been said that immigration reform stood high on President Obama's list; he has cited it among his top priorities.

Indeed, key supporters are angry that the White House has not acted on the issue.

On the day the health-care bill passed, 200,000 immigration demonstrators filled Washington's streets, working to move their issue to the front burner. But TV networks kept cameras trained on 10,000 Republican 'teabaggers' protesting against the health-care legislation.

While Democrats celebrated a hard-won victory, the teabaggers' ability to seize headlines raised questions about their impact on Obama's agenda.

Immigration is a huge problem for the United States. But polls show that anger about illegal immigration is among the issues most infuriating to teabaggers, and Republicans in general. Is any real or positive change possible in such a climate?

The Immigration Problem

The 12 million undocumented persons in the US face poverty, violence, and legal dangers. They cannot avail themselves of government services or protections.

For angry whites, the issue is simple: 'Illegals' fill American jobs and, by implication, take the country from its rightful owners - never mind that those complaining are themselves descended from immigrants. They are especially scornful of the idea of an 'amnesty' or 'forgiveness' for illegal immigrants of the kind that was offered in 1986, the last time Congress addressed the issue comprehensively.

African-American leaders make common cause with immigration activists, not least because of the many immigrants in their own communities. But there is anti-immigrant sentiment in some black communities where poverty and unemployment run twice as high as for the general population.

Detention, Family Separation, and Hard Labour

Much of the anger against immigrants is directed towards Hispanic people. Hate crimes doubled against them in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics have been reported. On Monday, a Long Island jury found a 17-year-old boy guilty of manslaughter in the notorious stabbing death of an Ecuadorian immigrant.

Hate crimes have risen generally since Obama's election. Obama is himself the subject of anger over accusations - disproved but persistent - that he is foreign born and, therefore, not qualified to be the US president.

High general unemployment swells the rolls of vigilante patrols along the country's southern border. The patrols have been praised by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who is himself an immigrant.

Five thousand migrants have died along the border in the last 14 years trying to make their way to the US.

There has been an increasing number of police round-ups of suspected workers, often illegal. And last week, Arizona passed a law that will allow police to stop 'immigrant suspects' and demand proof of their status, a move that will institutionalise racial profiling, and worse.

Developments in Arizona raise questions about whether immigration may now explode as a source of voter anger given economic hard times. Ten other states are considering such laws.

Tough Conditions, Bureaucratic Nightmares

Vulnerable because of their unofficial status, immigrants are often trapped in coercive work arrangements. Agricultural workers endure particularly harsh conditions. Forced labour and sex slavery are on the rise.

For immigrants trying to normalise their status, there are many hurdles. The cost of requests and appeals has risen; many can't afford legal representation. People suspected of violating laws - sometimes including US citizens - have been held without charges in anonymous offices and facilities. The system breaks up families and has seen the cover-up of detainee deaths.

One ignored aspect of the crisis is the break-up of South Asian and Middle Eastern immigrant families as Muslims, mostly men, were expelled without recourse, sometimes following paranoid whispering campaigns after 9/11. The issue has received almost no attention.

No one seems to be asking who is getting rich off the immigrant.

Positive Effects

Studies suggest that immigrants have positive effects on the US economy, contributing taxes that they never benefit from, and to the development of communities and businesses in them. For obvious reasons, they are very hard workers.

But undocumented workers burden governments and cities in ways their defenders often don't acknowledge. A rapid rise in immigrants can crush a city's education budget and place pressure on already meagre social services. Federal and state governments - not to mention those companies that profit from immigrant labour but pay few taxes - fail to assume the financial burdens.

Smuggling undocumented workers involves various illegal practices, from moving people across borders, to supplying them counterfeit papers. People lose all their savings; some are murdered. Such crimes could be diminished by reform.

Despite increases in illegal immigration, the number of arrests is small. As many as five per cent of US workers are undocumented, and immigration agents are overwhelmed. Arrests roil communities and local economies. Tracking illegal workers is difficult and expensive. Political power protects some economic sectors from scrutiny.

9/11 Changes

Congress and then President George Bush were poised to act on immigration before the events of 9/11. Bipartisan legislation sponsored by former Republican presidential hopeful John McCain and Ted Kennedy would have established a guest- worker programme, legalised many workers, and stepped up enforcement of immigration regulations.

"It would be impossible to identify and round up all 10-11 million of the current undocumented, and if we did, it would ground (the US) economy to a halt," McCain said at the time. "These millions of people are working. We have a national interest in identifying [them], incentivising them to come forward, go through security background checks, pay back taxes, pay penalties for breaking the law, learn to speak English. Anyone who thinks this goal can be achieved without providing an eventual path to permanent legal status is not serious."

In the poisoned climate prevailing since Obama's election, McCain has repudiated his own bill.

Fortunes were made after 9/11 as prisons opened, police personnel were hired, new surveillance and other technologies implemented. Security-related stocks shot up in value as immigration was recast as a security issue.

It is not so easy, in retrospect, to see what 9/11 had to do with immigration. But it stirred the racial pot. Economic hard times have stirred it further.

The Infamous Border Fence

Much post-9/11 attention focused on Mexico, where many people enter the US illegally, and Congress' decision to build a 700-mile fence along the border.

The boondoggle, dubbed the 'Great Wall of Mexico', is an environmental disaster, altering water flows and disturbing wildlife along the Rio Grande and beyond. Hundreds of environmental regulations were set aside to build it. Cost estimates had reached US$49 billion for the structure by 2007, which might purchase enough schools and health clinics in Mexico to end illegal immigration forever.

The wall was irresistible to lawmakers, emblematic of contagion fears in a country where whites will soon be the minority. As soon as it went up, holes began appearing in it. Many Democrats, including then Senator Barack Obama, voted for it.

Republican and Democratic Immigration Stances

Mainstream politicians walk a fine line between appeasing business interests, right-wing anger over immigration, and public sympathy for immigrants. Republicans not threatened by anti-immigrant wrath are, therefore, most likely to work with corporate interests to shape immigration legislation, while their Democratic counterparts, also quietly consulting with business, strive to address the needs of ethnic constituencies or work from humanitarian motives.

The role of business in creating the problem - the desire for cheap labour and profits, to avoid labour organising and unions - goes unspoken.

Publicly, Republicans emphasise punishment for people who break the laws and support increased police and security measures to catch them. Republicans have also sought to raise penalties for worker smuggling, and to suspend protections to suspects apprehended trying to enter the country, giving police powers to deport them without going through "the cumbersome process" of taking them before judges.

Democrats tend to renounce open hatred, but often line up behind the same measures.

If the poor were being championed politically, the immigration debate would look much different (see box, 'Real Solutions'). But in current conditions, with welfare services gutted, the poor lose out under guest-worker programmes - not so much to immigrants as with them.

Obama's Immigration Balancing Act

Within weeks of his inauguration, Obama's new administration announced stepped-up measures to fine companies hiring undocumented immigrants. This was a strong step in the right direction - it is obviously hypocritical to scapegoat workers while failing to punish companies who hire them.

A quarter of agricultural workers - to take one powerful example - are said to be illegal immigrants. This suggests collusion between authorities and 'big ag' interests. Addressing the issue would alter the immigration landscape. But it would also mean a battle royal, because a permanent workforce in agriculture could unionise and gain good wages. The cheap food that such labour makes possible has for a century underwritten not just US economic expansion, but US producers' ability to undersell competitors, undermining food production in poor countries all over the world.

Obama has spoken against right-wing figures who feed immigrant hatred. He opposed the denial of access to higher education for immigrant children. And though he voted for one bill that would have created a guest-worker programme, he has declared himself against measures that would deny immigrants citizenship and help to "create a servant class in our midst".

'Go To the End of the Line'

Obama insists illegal workers must "go to the end of the line" and "pay fines and back taxes", phrases oft repeated in his campaigns. Those who "follow the rules" can in time earn US citizenship.

Like Republicans, Obama has called for a system that would enable those hiring to verify that workers are eligible for employment.

When asked about a connection between illegal immigration and black unemployment, Obama was vague, telling a 2008 audience that high unemployment rates had existed "before the latest round of immigrants showed up". He spoke against using immigration as "a tactic to divide", and insisted that employers pay minimum wages (another crucial piece of the puzzle in the estimate of progressives). He voted for an increased police presence on the Mexico border and new detention centres for those caught trying to cross it.

Real Reform Prospects?

"We are faced with a choice. We can do nothing and watch as our families and communities continue to be torn apart by the broken immigration system ... or we can stand up," reform organisers said in announcing the March 20 demonstrations, which featured speakers from the black community, and Catholic and Asian-American as well as Caribbean and Hispanic organisations. (Further demonstrations are planned May 1.)

Chicago activist Joshua Hoyt noted the Obama administration was on track to deport 400,000 immigrants in its first year. "The sense of betrayal among Latinos over failure to address the problem is palpable," he said.

Polls show the public is sympathetic to normalising illegal immigrants' status if the flow of undocumented workers can be stemmed.

Obama has hinted he won't take up the fight without signs both parties have a bill they can move through Congress. Democrat Charles Schumer and Republican Lindsay Graham are working together on one bill. A more liberal bill has been introduced by Democratic Illinois Representative Luis Gutiérrez.

California Congressman Xavier Becerra - a reform proponent - said that while there were enough votes for reform in the House, that might not be the case in the Senate.

The Cost of Failure

Failure to act will hurt the Democrats. Latinos voted for Obama in greater numbers than they had for Democrat John Kerry in 2004, in part out of hope for immigration reform. The Latino vote, activists assert, delivered Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida to Obama, and helped supply his edge in several other states. Without these, it isn't easy to see him gaining re-election.

On April 20, Gutiérrez ratcheted up the pressure on Obama, declaring Hispanics could "just stay home" for November's by-elections. He alluded to the current lack of intensity among Democratic voters, a year into Obama's election and largely stalled agenda, in comparison to widespread anger driving Republicans and teabaggers.

Later the same day, word slipped out that the White House was poised to announce a push on legislation. Once again, the US seems destined to high-stakes confrontation with its demons.

Information for this story was supplied by the Pew Research Center,,, and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics as well as The Observer (United Kingdom), Guardian (UK), 'USA Today', The New York Times, The New Yorker, NPR, the 2004 Republican national platform, and information gleaned from discussions on the Internet blog, the Daily Kos. Errors are the author's responsibility.


Immigration Facts

  • Nearly eight million people entered the US from 2000-2005, sharpening a sense of crisis around immigration. Yet nearly half of illegal immigrants entered legally. Security measures can only partly address the problem.
  • US immigration policy has historically been both ad hoc - a matter of filling labour needs - and racist. Haitian immigration and asylum claims are routinely rejected, while official policy offers asylum to those fleeing Cuba.
  • There are 10-15 million estimated Caribbean immigrants in the US.
  • During stretches of the 19th century, 20 per cent of the population was foreign born. Today, it is roughly 10 per cent.
  • The American 'melting pot' ideal was predicated on whiteness, whose definition changed with time (Spaniards and Italians were long thought of as black). But 'becoming white' is not possible for many recent immigrants, who are more likely to live apart, maintain ties with home countries, and plan to one day return to them. Meanwhile, whites - many for the first time - have recently felt the sting of implications they are lazier than or intellectually inferior to recent immigrants, who tend to be people of colour.
  • Seventy-six per cent of immigrants are Hispanic, 59 per cent from Mexico. Seventy-three per cent of their children were born in the US and, therefore, are US citizens. Proposals that fail to regularise the status of parents threaten to harm their children and break up families.
  • There is an evident slowing of would-be immigrants to the US during the current economic hard times. The disappearance of manufacturing jobs in the US means that the good jobs immigrants hopes to assume are much less plentiful than they once were.

Real Solutions To Immigration Problems

  • Enforce the US minimum wage; mandate living wages. If employers pay fair wages, US citizens can live off of them. Immigrants should be welcome to those that remain - at the same good wages. Poor wages breed poor housing, crime, and other problems.
  • Outlaw guest-worker programmes. They allow employers to pay workers substandard wages, turn what should be permanent jobs into part-time or underpaid work, and undermine unionisation. In one recent case, immigration authorities worked with company officials to prevent labour protests among Indian guest workers in Mississippi.
  • Take the profit out of jailing people.
  • Maintain international legal standards and due process for all legal suspects.
  • Arrest and fine, or jail, employers who hire illegal workers.
  • Mandate emergency room and other social services for undocumented persons; allow them driver's licences. Failure to offer basic care for all increases the risk and costs - of disease, violence, uninsured accidents - for everyone else.
  • Foster justice outside the US. Emigration is a pressure valve for poor countries. Few people want to leave their own homes and communities. If people see hope at home they are likely to remain there.