OPINION: New opportunity for immigration reform

With the new Obama administration and an enhanced Democratic majority in Congress, we can make new advances on immigrants' rights.

In the last few years the Bush administration dropped all pretense of being immigrant-friendly. Enforcement actions were greatly increased. Deportations nearly doubled between 2006 and 2008 (to 349,041), creating immense suffering not only among undocumented immigrants but also among their U.S. citizen and legal resident relatives, neighbors and co-workers. Raids on workplaces have often left small children — many of them U.S. citizens – stranded at schools and child care centers while their parents were dragged away.

The government also began to charge undocumented immigrants caught with false Social Security numbers with felony identity theft, even though in the vast majority of cases the number, often just a made-up one, was used only to get employment. In the raids and prosecutions, the administration’s union-busting intent has become more blatant.

Last year, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff issued new rules requiring employers whose employees received Social Security “no-match” letters (issued by the Social Security Administration when an employee’s Social Security number does not match their records) to fire those employees if they could not clear up the discrepancy within 90 days. There are believed to be 17 million Social Security Administration files that contain errors, while there are only about 8 million undocumented workers in the U.S. The new rules could lead to the firing of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of citizen and legal resident workers because somewhere someone accidentally switched two digits in their Social Security numbers, or misspelled their names. Women would be especially at risk because name changes upon marriage provide another chance for clerical errors.

The AFL-CIO and others filed suit to stop the new rules, and a federal judge temporarily blocked their implementation. But the week before the elections, Chertoff went back into court to try to get his plan approved. If the court permits Chertoff to go ahead, some 140,000 employers will get no-match letters regarding possibly several million workers. All these workers will then have to besiege the Social Security Administration to find out why the letters were issued, and if they don’t get an answer within three months, they will be fired and may not be eligible for unemployment compensation or other government benefits. And the Bush administration has not hired a single new SSA employee to deal with this situation. The result will be more bankruptcies and foreclosures, and disrupted production.

What should we ask the new Obama administration to do?

First, Obama can do some things immediately without new legislation or congressional authorization, and without costing taxpayers a penny.

He can implement a moratorium on immigration raids, and divert the resources into catching international criminals and terrorists, and enforcing labor law.

He can drop felony prosecutions for undocumented immigrants with false Social Security numbers.

And he can stop litigation on Chertoff’s proposed new rules, simply informing the judge that the new administration is withdrawing the rules.

Once these Bush policies are corrected, work should start on a new comprehensive immigration reform bill.

In the last three Congresses, the idea was to get support for legalization of the undocumented by including three concessions to business interests and the Republicans: new guest worker programs, new enforcement mechanisms, and new hoops for immigrants seeking legalization to jump through. This tradeoff is sometimes called the “McCain-Kennedy architecture” for its Senate cosponsors in 2005-2006.

Anything more progressive would not have passed. But the McCain-Kennedy type of legislation did not pass either, mostly because the Republicans chose to use immigrant-bashing as a tactic for the 2006 and 2008 elections, but also because there was not enough of a united push from organized labor and its allies behind this legislation. Though some Change to Win unions with many new immigrant members supported the legislation, the AFL-CIO and several other Change to Win unions did not, mostly because of the guest worker programs.

But now, there is no need to worry about overriding a presidential veto, and Republicans have less far less leverage in Congress. We do not know yet how the new Democrats in Congress feel about legalization of the undocumented, and the filibuster threat in the Senate remains. But the situation will have improved overall.

We need a completely new start, which keeps the idea of legalizing the undocumented and changing visa policy so people can come here legally as regular immigrants, while dropping the guest worker aspect. Let’s get a new “architecture” that can get the united support of organized labor, the immigrant rights movement and all fair-minded people, and let’s get this done.

Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist.