“For eight long years, we have had a president who has made all kinds of promises to Latinos on the campaign trail, but failed to live up to them in the White House. We need a president who isn’t going to walk away from something as important as comprehensive [immigration] reform when it becomes politically unpopular.” – Barack Obama, July 2008
It is hard to overstate the euphoria that swept the country when Barack Obama took office in January 2009. The hated George W. Bush era was over, and the Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress with large majorities. After determined fighting during the Bush years, the immigrant rights movement seemed to finally have a chance at scoring major legislative victories.
However, these hopes never materialized. Over five years into the new administration, there have still been no new laws passed that grant legalization to the millions of undocumented workers in the United States. The Obama administration has portrayed itself as immigrant friendly, dropping deportation charges against undocumented adults and youth without “serious” criminal records. But these measures have not been widely or uniformly implemented. Since they do not give immigrants any legal rights, they do not provide security from deportation to the vast majority of immigrants within the United States.
In fact, the opposite has occurred. The Obama administration has carried out approximately two million deportations since taking office. The pace of deportations has escalated to the point that they are being carried out nearly twice as often as under Bush. The militarization of the border has escalated, expanding drone use, and collaboration with local and state law enforcement. Federal prosecutions of immigration-related offenses is at an all-time high, especially at the border. In 2013, the federal government brought a record 97,384 criminal prosecutions for immigration charges, including “illegal entry,” and “illegal re-entry.” “Illegal re-entry” is a federal felony that can carry a maximum 20-year prison term. It is now one of the most commonly prosecuted federal offenses.
This betrayal tragically illustrates a core principle – it is the strength of the people’s movement, not which politician holds office, that is the decisive factor in the progress or retreats that are made. In a situation where the state is designed to serve the enemies of poor and working people, struggle is the only available option to oppressed people seeking to defend and expand their rights. Moreover, the reforms offered by the ruling parties, whether Democrat or Republican, have represented the minimum concessions necessary to pacify any growing resistance. In response to a national call to action for a moratorium on deportations, the President held a meeting in early March with undocumented youth leaders to try and discourage their activism.
As the years went by with little more than lobbying on the part of mainstream “immigrant rights” organizations, a larger and larger section of the movement began to see the futility and hypocrisy of defending the Democratic Party while it, at the same time, continued its assault on immigrant families. Among the most militant and courageous have been undocumented youth, who refused to live in fear and fought back for full legalization for themselves and their families at great personal risk.
Through a series of actions, including a wave of sit-ins targeting Obama re-election campaign offices, this advanced section of the movement was able to win semi-protection from deportation under a 2012 program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Under DACA, many “DREAMers” who arrived in the United States while they were under the age of 16 qualify for employment authorization for a two-year period.
However, the movement has not yet won permanent security for the millions of families who live in fear of being torn apart by the racist immigration system.
The Obama administration’s efforts at Comprehensive Immigration Reform essentially began in late 2012, and were joined by a bi-partisan group in the Senate. The Senate passed a controversial enforcement-heavy immigration reform package in June 2013 that would have provided protection from deportation to millions, but not permanent immigration status for at least a decade. The House rejected this reform bill off-hand, with Republicans obstructing it from coming to a vote.
The Democratic Party and their apologists blame the Republicans for their obstructionist tactics. Reducing politics to vote counting, they argue that if only the House of Representatives would pass the Senate’s bill the problem would be solved. But in the current situation, are the Democrats’ hands are simply tied, as they claim?
Congress and the President – What’s the difference?
In school, we are taught that the separation of powers is a sacred principle that all “democratic” governments must abide by – one of the genius inventions of the “founding fathers.” In reality, this is the preferred form of governance by a tiny clique of bankers and CEOs because it is the most effective at excluding poor and working people while building consensus among the rulers of society.
Forms of government that concentrate power in the hands of one or a few individuals are naturally unstable, because it is extremely difficult for such a small group to represent all the different sections of the ruling class. While they all have a common interest in maintaining the system of exploitation for private profit, the capitalist class has many competing wings, divided by both economic activity and political inclination.
By creating many different governing bodies and creating a division of labor among themselves, the U.S. ruling class has a system that requires them to work together to function well. There often needs to be a relatively high level of consensus among them to take a significant
Some sections of the capitalist class, especially those in the high-tech sector, are in fact in favor of the immigration reform laws that the Democratic Party is promoting. They want a more stable workforce, and more flexibility when it comes to draining highly-skilled workers from oppressed countries. Family unity and justice for working people are not their concern.
However, there are other sectors that see a political advantage in inducing racist hysteria against immigrants. Many have built their careers and local power bases on such reactionary politics. This sector will look for any reason to stall Comprehensive Immigration Reform, while at the same time claiming to support “reform with a commitment to enforcement.” This would mean offering some limited legalization as a concession to the movement in exchange for a near blank check to detain and deport people. This sector of politicians blame the Democratic Party for the stalled legislation, accusing it of “refusing to negotiate.”
Neither ruling-class bloc has not been able to muster the support to clear the bar for consensus set by the U.S. ruling class’ separation of powers. In the meanwhile, over 1,100 people continue to be deported each day, while a political stalemate has permeated the White House and the halls of Congress.
The actions of the entire apparatus of the U.S. government cannot be reduced to a simple math equation – the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in Congress. If the immigrant rights movement can mobilize enough militancy directed at the entire deportation apparatus, the political climate will continue to change, regardless of whether reform ultimately comes from the White House or Congress. The deportation apparatus includes the immigration laws themselves, the funding for DHS and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Obama administration’s enforcement mechanisms.
With protests and hunger strikes nationwide targeting the White House as well as Congress over the last six months, the more radical parts of the immigrant rights movement have brought the heat of the struggle directly to President Obama and the Democratic Party leadership. In response to a national call to action and pressure from national organizations for a moratorium on deportations, the President himself held a meeting in early March with key undocumented youth leaders. He discouraged their activism, saying that the rallies and protests showed disunity to the Republicans, and asked for a 90-day reprieve.
Instead of stopping, the rallies and hunger strikes have escalated, with activists traveling to D.C. from the East and West Coasts to demand a moratorium on deportations. Activists formed a Blue Ribbon Commission that released a set of 14 progressive demands, which include the renegotiation of trade agreements. As a review of deportation policies continues and the struggle escalates against both branches of government, the immigrant rights movement stands in a stronger position to win the change that communities across the United States so desperately need.