Immigration battle heats up in context of the elections

The Republican Party has no positive program to appeal to the voters in November 2016 and so is falling back on the old standby of trying to scare them out of their wits. It has clearly decided that immigration will be a major theme of its 2016 electoral campaign. Although Donald Trump’s statements about undocumented immigrants as “rapists” and his balderdash about building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and “making Mexico pay for it” have been particularly extreme, the rest of the Republican presidential field has not been much better, and this applies also to candidates for Congress.

There is no immediate possibility of getting a humane immigration reform bill through the Republican-controlled Congress. Twenty six Republican state attorneys general have tied up President Obama’s attempt to provide relief – in the form of an executive order preventing their deportation and giving them work permits – to some five million undocumented immigrants.

The president’s 2014 executive order includes an expanded DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program for “Dreamers” – people who were brought into the country as minors without papers – and the DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents) program providing the same relief for undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. All these people would be protected from deportation, and would be allowed to work in the U.S. while efforts are made to pass a humane immigration reform package in Congress that would allow for legalization and eventual citizenship of most.

But the DAPA program, and expanded DACA, cannot be carried out until further notice, because the Republican attorneys general managed to get a conservative judge in Texas to block their implementation. The pretext is that President Obama exceeded his executive authority by imposing on the states a program that will cost them money, i.e., the cost of issuing drivers’ licenses to the beneficiaries. It is a specious excuse, not least because the ability of these workers to get better jobs will end up benefiting the states through increased tax revenues and by stimulating the local economy.

The federal government has appealed to the Supreme Court, pointing out that numerous previous administrations have provided similar relief without problems. The Republican attorneys general countered by trying to postpone Supreme Court action on the matter into the next presidential term, or at least long enough to place the Court’s debate smack in the middle of the most intense period of the 2016 electoral season.

On January 19th, the Supreme Court decided, against the wishes of the Republicans, to review the case. This was a small victory for the Obama administration and the immigrants, because what the Republicans wanted was for the Court either to decline to review the lower court’s ruling or to delay the matter. With the new Supreme Court decision, the issue will come up before the Court perilously close to the height of the election season.

The Democrats realize that relief for undocumented immigrants and their families is an important issue for Latino voters. Polls suggest that Trump’s anti-immigrant demagogy may both drive Latino voters away from the Republicans and increase Latino voters’ registration and turnout in November.

There is now a potential of 27 million Latino voters, a fact whose importance has been masked in previous elections by a relatively low rate of voter registration and turnout.

Should this change this year, the negative Latino reaction to Republican anti-immigrant propaganda could be of huge benefit to the Democrats. So the Democratic presidential candidates – Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley (who has now dropped out) – have all come out strongly in favor of a humane immigration reform that would allow most of the just under 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country to obtain legal status and, eventually, citizenship and voting rights.

But one day before Christmas of 2015, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson caused consternation by announcing that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers would be arresting and deporting an unspecified number of mostly Central American migrants who entered the U.S. since January 2014 and have not been able to achieve asylum.

Immediately, all three Democratic presidential candidates denounced this move by ICE and called for its suspension, on the grounds that the people affected should be seen not as “illegal immigrants” but as refugees from an extremely dangerous situation that has been developing in three Central American countries from which the latest group of migrants has come: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. This position was supported by a strongly worded statement signed by 143 Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives and another signed by 22 Democratic Senators. Numerous local governments announced they would not cooperate with efforts to round up the Central Americans.

On January 25th, 275 organizations that work with the issue of immigrants’ and refugees’ rights asked for “Temporary Protected Status” (TPS) for Central American refugees.

Temporary Protected Status has, in the past, been extended to people in the U.S. without immigration papers who cannot return to their homelands because of situations such as natural disasters which constitute threats to their lives and safety. Currently covered are a total of thirteen countries. El Salvador and Honduras are on the list, but their citizens’ TPS is due to expire later this year, and there is no guarantee it will be extended. There is no current TPS for Guatemalans.

TPS would halt deportation of citizens of the affected countries, but it has some down sides. During the presidency of George W. Bush, the threat to discontinue TPS for Salvadoran citizens was used to pressure Salvadoran voters to avoid voting for left-wing political parties, and also to pressure the Salvadoran government to support the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, TPS cannot automatically be turned into permanent legal residence without Congressional action, so the threat of deportation is always there. But it would help alleviate the immediate crisis.

Meanwhile, Latino, immigrants’ rights and progressive organizations and leaders have greatly intensified their outreach efforts to get eligible people to register to vote and turn out on election day. Even people who cannot vote because they are not U.S. citizens are urged to get their U.S. citizen friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers to register and vote, because it is a matter of “vida o muerte” – life or death.

Photo: AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.