Is Comprehensive Immigration Reform dead?: Two paths ahead for the immigrant rights movement
San José, CA – On Nov. 19, President Obama stated in an interview at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council that he was willing to go along with the piecemeal approach to immigration reform advocated by Republicans in the House of Representatives. Obama said that he wanted all the parts put forward by the Senate bill, which include legalization, more militarization of the border, expansion of temporary worker programs, expansion of workplace enforcement and shifting legal immigration from family reunification to employment and education-based visas to meet the needs of business.
But the reality is that the Republicans will block any legalization bill, while business interests will push the passage of expanding temporary worker and employment based visas. In the meantime immigrants are facing a wave of repression, with the Obama administration having deported a record 2 million undocumented people. So the piecemeal approach is most likely to end up being more of the same for the undocumented: more deportations, no legalization and a temporary reprieve for undocumented who came as children and qualify under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
So why is Obama retreating in the face of Republican opposition to immigration reform? One reason may be a partisan consideration. By making this concession, Obama is trying to keep the immigration issue in the media, hoping to benefit in next year’s election by looking ‘reasonable’ in the face of Republican opposition to immigration reform, even if this means doing little to nothing to advance any immigration reform. But another factor is that many of Obama’s policies are, in fact, moderate Republican ones. Take a look at his Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Two of the most controversial parts of the ACA, the insurance exchanges and the individual mandate, were both Republican ideas that were embodied in the Massachusetts health care reform under Republican governor Mitt Romney.
Fundamentally, this reflects the fact that both the Democratic and the Republican parties represent the 1%, the tiny minority who own half the total wealth in the U.S. and control the large corporations that dominate the economy. While the two parties have their differences, with the Republicans wanting more repression of immigrants with militarization at the border, and the Democrats are more interested in meeting the needs of business through expanding temporary and guest worker programs, they serve the same interests.
Up to now, there have been three views of immigration reform. On the one hand, there were advocates for the undocumented, family reunification and workers, who supported legalization and stopping deportations. They also opposed more militarization of the border, more workplace enforcement, more temporary and guest workers, cuts in family reunification and diversity visas and criminalization of the undocumented and expansion of using local police and sheriffs to crack down on immigrants. More and more of these forces are uniting behind a demand that the president issue a ‘Deferred Action For All’ that expands the DACA program to all the undocumented. This would allow the undocumented to come out of the shadows and be able to work and drive legally, while laying the basis for a stronger push for legalization in the future.
Then there were the right-wing Republicans in the House of Representatives, who opposed legalization, and wanted more militarization, more workplace enforcement, more temporary, guest and employment visas and supported criminalization of the undocumented and expansion of ICE-local police programs, as seen in the SAFE act that passed a House committee on a straight party line vote. The House Republicans also support a piecemeal approach so that they can pass what they want (more repression of immigrants) and block what they don’t want (legalization).
In between was the “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” or CIR approach, as seen in the Senate immigration reform bill. CIR tried to combine the other two opposing views on immigration reform, as a way of getting Republican support. But with the overall atmosphere of repression, the Senate bill got steadily worse, with a lot more militarization of the border. The House bipartisan bill was widely known to be even worse, but it never got off the ground as the House Republicans pulled support for any bill with legalization and rallied around a piecemeal approach in opposition to CIR. With Obama’s concession to the House Republicans, the CIR approach is basically dead for now.
Backers of the CIR approach have two choices: they can go along with the President’s approach, either openly or trying to hide behind the fiction that CIR is still possible in the House. This will end up with some pro-business changes, such as more temporary worker and employment-based visas, but no legalization and the continuing deportation of record numbers of the undocumented. Or they can join with advocates of legalization and stopping the deportations by backing the Deferred Action For All or DAFA, which would both benefit the undocumented and put pressure on the House to deal with legalization.
Masao Suzuki is a supporter of the Legalization for All network and a regular contributor to Fight Back! newspaper on the economy and the immigrant rights movement.