Voices of Color
New president, old immigration policy
Christina López
volume 30
issue 5
October 2009

Like thousands of other immigrants each week, this Guatemalan woman goes through ICE's deportation process at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.

Some prominent immigrant rights organizations sincerely hoped that electing Obama would turn things around for immigrants. But those hopes were misplaced. Obama's policies mirror those of his predecessors: more raids, detentions, and deportations; more roadblocks to citizenship; and more pandering to the right wing.

Fortunately, though, the cause of immigrants rights is still alive at the grass roots.

Updating the harassment. Bill Clinton took militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border to a new level. His buildup has caused many immigrants to lose their lives by crossing at the physically harsh, but less patrolled, Arizona border. George W. Bush expanded upon what Clinton initiated.

Obama is on the same track. In April, his administration announced plans to expand a $1.1 billion program to check the immigration status of everyone arrested for a crime. This Bush-era policy broadens the power of local authorities to enforce federal law.

Obama intends to further develop Bush's "zero tolerance" program, which puts undocumented immigrants caught crossing the border into detention. He will also continue to put billions toward more border patrol and the construction of high-tech "security fence" dividing people along the border.

During the Bush years, workplace raids increased dramatically. While these are still happening, Obama has announced a shift in focus to the prosecution of employers who hire unauthorized workers. This puts pressure on employers to participate in the mostly voluntary E-Verify system, which became mandatory for federal subcontractors on Sept. 8.

E-Verify checks the immigration status of potential workers by way of a federal database (which is acknowledged to flag huge numbers of people who are actually authorized to work in the U.S.). E-Verify loss of employment is not as visible as armed raids, but it has the same results. Obama wants the program to become mandatory for all employers.

Under Obama, just one division of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Flight Operations Unit, is deporting an average of 4,200 immigrants every week, up from 3,700 last year.

Accommodating to the racist right wing. Like Bush, Obama says he believes that undocumented people in the U.S. who want legal status should go to the back of a very long, extremely slow line, behind people applying while still in their home countries.

He also has said that applicants must learn English. Although most immigrants acquire enough English to get by, many do not have the time or resources to take classes. Learning English should remain a voluntary learning skill, not an unconstitutional requirement.

Additionally, Obama wants immigrants to pay fines and back taxes as part of gaining legal resident status - which puts this goal out of reach for most immigrants.

Obama is silent about the devastating free-trade policies that force immigrants to come to the U.S. just to survive. And he has nothing to say from his presidential bully pulpit about the anti-immigrant racism that is directed today primarily toward Latin Americans from many quarters, including media blights like CNN'S Lou Dobbs. Instead, the president caters to anti-immigrant sentiment.

This was obvious in his Sept. 9 healthcare speech, when he sternly reassured Congress that his plan would not cover "illegals" - deliberately adopting the right wing's term. This validates the racist myth that immigrant workers deplete tax dollars when, in truth, immigrants contribute more than their fair share.

Where to look for change? The economy is in a perpetual state of crisis - poverty, sexist and racist inequality, declining profits, unemployment, foreclosures - none of which are the fault of immigrants! But Democratic politicians, just like Republicans, will do whatever they can to bail out their profit system.

Throwing money at big corporations to build and secure borders or run private immigration detention centers is one strategy. Another is to ensure the flow of cheap labor. Accordingly, it would not be surprising should Obama follow in the Clinton/Bush footsteps by calling for some sort of "guest-worker" bill - in reality, legislation for indentured servitude.

Obama is obligated to act in the interest of the business elite, making unlikely any moratorium on raids, detentions, and deportations - much less unconditional amnesty, open borders, or the dismantling of ICE. The moral of the story: support for Democrats needs to end in favor of political parties that actually represent the needs of workers, truly independent from both parties of big business.

Look too toward a bold immigrant rights movement to turn things around. The power of such a movement shone through during the 2006 student walkouts and big marches, which prevented the imminent enactment of a guest-worker bill and greatly increased solidarity for immigrants by organized labor. Many specific acts of resistance are keeping the spirit of that movement alive today.

Community organizations across the U.S. have staged protests against raids. In Washington state, groups protested an ICE raid at an auto parts factory. In California, residents at the Woodlawn Mobile Home Park demanded an end to police brutality against immigrants who are fellow residents. In Ohio, a group rallied against raids at Casa Fiesta restaurants.

The Stop the Checkpoints coalition in western Washington state has mobilized hundreds against border patrol checkpoints and immigration raids. Their organizing led the local sheriff to announce that his office will not cooperate with Homeland Security.

In Texas, several protests took place outside the T. Don Hutto facility, a private detention center that also jailed young children. It was recently announced that families will no longer be held at this notorious prison.

Obama will never deliver on immigrant rights. That's a job for immigrants themselves, unionists, socialists, and other social-change groups, united in a common struggle to "lift all boats" by providing justice and fairness for those on the bottom.

Contact Seattle Radical Women Organizer Christina López at RWseattle@mindspring.com