by Megan Hope
For the last two years, immigration has been the talk of the nation not just for the likes of Annunciation House supporters, but for everyone. Even folks hitherto quite unaware of the immigrants in their midst leapt to attention, talked about the issue, blogged about it, marched, turned up their radios, and picked up their phones. In fact, a massive volume of calls shut down the Capitol switchboard just before the vote that may have ended immigration debate in Congress for the foreseeable future.
In a procedural vote on June 28, 2007, the Senate voted 53-46 against a motion to close debate (cloture) and move toward final passage of Senate bill 1639, the Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Reform Act of 2007. (Several weeks prior, essentially the same provisions were contained in the similarly named S. 1348). Since filibuster leaders would not agree to time limits on discussion of a cluster of 27 proposed amendments to S. 1639, voting for cloture became essentially the only possibility for proceeding.
The grand bargain, as the bundle of compromises between the Bush White Houses version of reform and the desires of prominent immigrant advocates came to be known, called for the largest changes to immigration law in at least 20 years. The bill would have provided some undocumented immigrants a path for legalization although it introduced a radically different way of prioritizing what kind of immigrants would qualify for legalization in the future. It would have expanded the nations controversial use of temporary workers and substantially increased border and employment enforcement. The bills historic implications incited passions on all sides, and time was of the essence. The Bush administration desperately wanted to claim immigration reform as a domestic victory as the 2008 elections loom on the horizon.
Toward the end, proponents of the bill admitted that the grand bargain was neither grand nor much of a bargain. But facing fierce competition from anti-immigrant advocates, supporters were resolute. A June 26th email alert from the National Immigration Forum, a Washington D.C. advocacy group implored, Regardless of your position on the bill itself, the anti-immigrant crowd is going crazy, and Senators need to hear from constituents who will stick up for immigrants.
Was comprehensive immigration reform really the ultimate way to stick up for immigrants? Who caused its collapse? Is it true, as supporters warned, that nothing could be worse than the failure to pass reform? Or could it be, as opponents claimed, that nothing would have been more dangerous? In the absence of reform to immigration policy, what can be done to improve the lot of the people who come to Annunciation House’s doors and other immigrants?
The Deal Makers Behind Comprehensive Immigration Reform
Perhaps the first thing to understand about comprehensive immigration reform is what it is not. In spite of the way the debate has been oversimplified by the media and other observers and even by participants is not a clear-cut conflict of immigrants and their defenders versus the right and the anti-immigrant crowd. Nor are immigrant advocates, immigration opponents, or immigrants themselves monolithic and homogenous forces.
Consider the roll call for the final vote: Would-be loyal Bushies like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell defected to vote against cloture, while Trent Lott and Barack Obama united to back the bill. Disparate reactions to the collapse of immigration reform stirred together unlikely melting pots, too. Both President Bush and Senator Edward Kennedy are bitterly disappointed. Rush Limbaugh and an immigration caucus that includes the Farmworkers Association of Florida and Queers for Economic Justice are relieved.
Why such disparities? In a post-vote analysis, Maurice Belanger of the National Immigration Forum describes the nature of the Bush administrations involvement in comprehensive immigration reform as contributing to the final bill taking on its unsavory shape. Instead of working with the core group of [immigration] reformers from the last Congress, the White House made those who opposed reform last year central to the negotiations, he writes. The White House wanted to negotiate a deal that could be supported by the majority of Republicans. Such a deal, he suggests would result in a bill that would provide a solution to the problem of 12 million undocumented immigrants, expand guest worker programs as a source of inexpensive labor for corporations, and be tough on immigration by seriously beefing up border security and enforcement. But, Belanger says, creating a totally Republican-friendly bill was impossible. He implies that by trying to please everyone, the bill pleased no one.
Recent history has shown that comprehensive immigration reform has always been about trade-offs and compromises, including ones so significant that many immigrants and their advocates have been consistently displeased by the movement. David Bacon, a frequent writer about Mexico, labor, and immigration, explains, Despite the fact that the [2007 Senate] bill was brokered by the Bush administration, many of its proponents were not Republicans, but liberal Democrats. Supporting it was a network of lobbyists referred to in the press as immigration advocates, large employers, and conservative think tanks. For two years, this alliance advocated a strategy of trading legalization of undocumented immigrants for increased immigration enforcement and guest worker programs (D. Bacon).
Prominent among the immigration advocates were the National Immigration Forum and the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Backing them was a lobbying group organized in the 1990s, the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (EWIC). As Bacon describes, the EWIC draws together 40 of the largest corporate trade and manufacturing associations (and major employers of immigrants) in the country, including Wal-Mart, Marriott, Tyson Foods, and the Association of Builders and Contractors, under the auspices of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. EWIC enlisted the libertarian Cato Institute think tank to produce guest worker recommendations that President Bush has repeated almost verbatim. The hard-right Manhattan Institute [think tank] provides additional cover [for guest worker programs], writes Bacon. Bringing things full circle, EWIC head John Gay, also head of the National Restaurant Association, chairs the National Immigration Reform board.
A February New York Times column by the executive director of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States and member of the Coalition for Comprehensive Reform, hints at the influence that this seemingly motley crew of proponents had on each other. Titled “A Change of Heart,” the column explains that after decades of strongly opposing temporary worker programs, NCLR and other organizations had decided that a new worker visa program was necessary to helping immigrants and satisfying the country’s demand for orderly immigration and security. As it happens, EWIC member Wal-Mart and 14 other multinationals are corporate sponsors of NCLR.
Immigration Deformation: The Raw Deals in the Senate Bill
While critical of some provisions in the immigration reform bills of the past several years, proponents of comprehensive immigration reform have defended their basic strategy. Belanger explains that although the Senate bill in its final form had moved so far to the right that it was likeable to few, immigrant advocates who pushed for its passage did so mainly so that legislation to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants could survive. But, by decrying the legalization plan as amnesty, right-wing radio talk show hosts and anti-immigrant groups galvanized the calls that eventually swayed Republics to vote against cloture, Belanger asserts.
The Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) has a different theory about the bills demise. The groups website announces, Immigration Reform Bill DEFEATED! Due to its Inherent Flaws!
Some of the inherent flaws that MAPA, Filipinos for Affirmative Action, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and others who claim to stand up for immigrants including some volunteers and supporters of Annunciation House find in the Senates comprehensive immigration reform bill are these:
A. The legalization plan contains dangers and limited benefits for currently undocumented immigrants.
The bills legalization plan was touted as the answer for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, most of whom are currently ineligible to apply for legal permanent residency (LPR the status required before an immigrant can be eligible for citizenship). In fact, however, the legalization provisions include so many restrictions and difficult requirements that only a small percentage of the 12 million would have eventually qualified. The procedure would be slower and much more expensive than current legalization processes. An adult applicant would likely pay $8,500 in fees and fines and wait 8 to 13 years before receiving LPR status and only if he had enough points under the new merit-based system (described below) to still qualify.
Meanwhile, applicants would be in temporary probationary status until certain enforcement triggers (described below) are met and would then hold four-year visas until the current backlog of residency applications has been cleared. Then they would have to return to their home countries to apply for LPR status. During the wait, immigrants could become more vulnerable to workplace abuses for fear of complaining and losing their jobs, since employment is a requirement. Children and spouses not already living in the United States as of January 1, 2007 would be ineligible for probationary status, so family separation one of the problems that immigration reform sought to reverse would be perpetuated. If this is amnesty, it’s certainly an unmerciful one.
B. The merit-based point system devalues family reunification as a central principle of U.S. immigration policy.
Currently, eligibility for LPR status is based largely on family relationships, with the goal of reuniting immediate family members in the United States. The bill would replace this system with a merit-based system, in which applicants would receive more points for their type of occupation, work with a U.S. firm, employer endorsement, age, type of education, and English proficiency than for family relationships. Immigrants with family applications filed before May 2005 would be exempt from the point system, but those who filed after this date would lose their place in line and have to re-apply. The program would aim to clear the current backlog of pending LPR applications; however, the limits placed on some categories of immigrant visas would increase backlogs. An analysis of the bill by the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights concludes that the new system would favor English-speaking, highly skilled and educated immigrants who are perceived to better fit into US economic needs. Hence, opportunism and discrimination would trump family values.
C. The expanded guest worker program disrespects family unity and perpetuates a system of foreign workers treated as disposable commodities.
The Senate bill would provide 200,000 new guest worker visas each year. Visas would be good for two years and could be renewed a maximum of two times, provided the worker returned home for a full year between renewals. A worker’s spouse and minor children could join them in the United States for only one two-year period and only if the worker could prove a certain level of income and provide medical insurance for the family. Also, any worker whose family joined him would be granted just one visa renewal instead of two. Far from offering a path to legalization for all temporary workers, only exceptionally skilled visa holders could earn points toward a limited number of green cards. Like the legalization program for undocumented immigrants, the guest worker program wouldnt take effect until enforcement triggers are met. The bill does include the provisions of the better AgJOBS bill (described in another article in this issue).
Although the new guest worker program would include some improvements over the current H-2 visa program, such as the ability of workers to switch employers (within the same program), it is worse than what NCLR and other advocates originally bargained for. But bargaining for any kind of guest worker program resembling the status quo is ruinous for immigrants and the integrity of the U.S. labor system. Several months ago the Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report, Close to Slavery, with exhaustive evidence of widespread and systematic abuses of workers under the current H-2 program. Guest workers are routinely cheated out of wages, held virtually as indentured servants, forced to live in squalid conditions, and denied medical benefits for on-the-job injuries. Although they are accorded some basic labor protections, exerting them is infeasible for multiple reasons, and government enforcement of their rights is almost nonexistent. The report concludes that only radical changes far beyond those envisioned by comprehensive immigration reform could alter a labor system that is, by its very nature, exploitative.
Guest worker programs also fly in the face of complaints by some Americans that immigrants just come to work and dont try to integrate into communities. How are they supposed to integrate when they are literally hired hands used to intermittently fill labor shortages? As the AFL-CIOs John Sweeney notes, what is bad for immigrant workers is bad for all workers. The best way to guarantee the rights and wages of all workers in this country, he says, is to give every immigrant the opportunity to become a citizen, with all the rights and duties that entails.
D. The enforcement provisions of the bill would foster continued rights violations of immigrants and continued criminalizing of immigrant workers.
As noted previously, the legalization and guest worker programs included in the bill could not begin until certain increases in immigration enforcement are made and certified by the Department of Homeland Security (expected to take about 18 months, but there is no legally mandated timetable in the bill). Some of these triggers include: gaining (by DHS) operational control of the border; hiring, training, and deploying 20,000 Border Patrol agents; constructing 370 miles of border fencing and 300 miles of vehicle barriers; building or contracting enough capacity to detain up to 31,500 immigrants on any given day; and implementing the Electronic Employee Verification System (an electronic database that employers would use to check whether an employee can legally work in the United States).
Other enforcement provisions in the bill would also increase fines and penalties against employers who knowingly hire undocumented immigrants; impose criminal penalties for illegal entry and increase criminal penalties for most cases of illegal reentry; broaden criminal provisions regarding passport and document fraud; bar and deport immigrants associated (by broad definition) with gangs; and offer reimbursement for local police departments that receive immigration enforcement training and detain undocumented immigrants. The bill also undermines due process and judicial review of immigrants cases and supports the indefinite detention of immigrants with final orders of deportation.
The effects of border militarization are already known: rights of immigrants and non-immigrants living in border communities are violated, and migrants crossing the border are assaulted, drowned, dehydrated, and killed in their attempts to avoid detection. Sanctions against knowing employers of the undocumented have already been in place for 20 years and have had no impact on reducing undocumented immigration; rather, they prevent immigrant workers from exercising labor rights and preclude effective enforcement of labor protections. The employee verification system is already proven to be error-prone and unreliable, and its further use would only increase the disparity in power between employers and workers.
What is more, the bill obviously perpetuates the implication part and parcel of immigration reform talk that undocumented immigrants (or more commonly, illegal aliens) are criminal invaders by their very essence, rather than persons who at one time committed a victimless technical offense. After all, existing immigration law is civil, not criminal, law; deportation is more accurately described as the U.S. government suing an immigrant for a violation than punishing him for a crime. As scholars George Lakoff and Sam Ferguson posit, Imagine calling businessmen who once cheated on their taxes illegal businessmen. Imagine calling people who have driven over the speed limit illegal drivers.
Real Reform: Much More Than Immigration
Lakoff and Ferguson offer other poignant observations about the narrow framing of immigration reform as a legal and security issue that targets immigrants as the problematic element. They demonstrate that real immigration reform must be about much more than immigration, because immigration is an intersection of global economics, cultural identity, social concerns, and foreign policy. The Senate bill itself pretends to make the immigration system into a labor supply system for corporations.
Indeed, the immigration problem is really a cheap labor issue, starting with the cheap labor provided by immigrants before they leave their home countries. The undocumented immigrants allow employers to pay low wages, which in turn provide the cheap consumer goods we find at Wal-Mart and McDonalds, explain Lakoff and Ferguson. They are part of a move towards a cheap lifestyle, where employers and consumers find any way they can to save a dollar, regardless of the human cost. Immigrants take the jobs Americans do not because Americans dont want them, but because they dont want to work for unjustly low wages. These wages have not increased during Bush’s term in office, although corporate profits have doubled during that same period.
So immigration is an economic issue in which we are all complicit. It is also a humanitarian crisis and a civil rights problem. And because of that, it deserves the sustained commitment that other social change movements have required for their success. Is it possible to create a more just immigration system, one that acknowledges that immigration is a symptom, not the cause, of economic and social problems? Is it possible to base immigration reform on principles of equality and justice, including full labor, civil and human rights for all immigrants, instead of trade-offs? Yes, but only if immigrant advocates insist on it. The Immigrant Rights Caucus, a group of more than 25 organizations convened by the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, is an example of just such an effort. So are the concepts for legislation developed by the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance and adopted by other immigrant and labor rights organizations (see David Bacon’s website for a list of these concepts).
Those disappointed by the breakdown of comprehensive immigration reform are not without reason. It is true that in the last few years, every state legislature and several cities and towns have introduced hundreds of punitive immigration-related bills, resolutions, and ordinances, citing the lack of federal intervention and support as their rationale. These are likely to continue. Options for federal immigration reform, be they the floating of individual pieces of legislation or another push for comprehensive reform, may be bleak in the foreseeable future. And, as the National Immigration Forum warns, the wave of work site raids and deportation of undocumented immigrants will likely continue, too. But it is important to note that raids have been pointed to by immigrant advocates including NCLRas a justification for the need for guest worker programs for the meatpacking and other industries. And, proponents of immigration reform have supported past bills that mandated raids another price advocates were willing to pay in return for guest worker programs.
During the last round of immigration debate, the National Day Labor Organizing Network urged the kind of patience and principled approach that all of us who want to stick up for immigrants would be wise to follow: We know the struggle for justice and immigration reform requires a long view of history, and we will not be pressured into accepting an insufficient compromise simply for sake of political expediency. We owe it to this and future generations to pass a bill that we can all be proud of.
(Several quotations of individuals and groups in this article were taken from David Bacon‘s articles, Who Killed the Immigration Bill, And Who Wants It To Come Back? and Which Side Are You On? available at http://dbacon.igc.org)
For more information on immigration reform, check out these sources:
- Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform
- Articles by author David Bacon
- National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
- Migration Policy Institute
Megan Hope currently works for the Migrant Farmworkers Project in Kansas City, MO in addition to traveling around the globe through her work with Children’s International. Megan has served as a volunteer with Annunciation House on two separate occasions, most recently in 2004-2005.