President Obama on immigration: How we got here and what’s next?

President Obama made his long-awaited announcement of “executive action” on immigration reform on Thursday evening, November 20. As predicted, it will provide relief for several million people. It does not cover everybody in need of help, and it made some concessions to business interests that may be criticized, but on the whole it was a positive move. It has been praised by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and other immigrants’ rights and labor leaders.

It has driven some sections of the Republican right wing off the deep end, to extent that there is even worry within the Republican Party that their brand may be damaged by ill-considered responses from the tea party extremists.

Three major benefits

The main positive features of the President’s program are the following:

  • DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program for “Dreamers” (persons who were brought to this country without immigration papers when they were minors), is expanded, in the first place by removing the age limit for applying. When that program was first introduced by the Obama administration just before the 2012 general elections, persons over 31 years old could not apply and receive suspension of deportation plus work permits. Now that age limit is removed; anybody brought over as a child will qualify, except for people convicted of serious crimes. In addition, the former cutoff date for arrival, 2007, is now moved up to 2010. This means that an additional 290,000 childhood arrivals will be able to apply for relief.
  • Parents of U.S. citizen and legal permanent resident children will be allowed relief consisting of suspension of deportation as well as work permits as long as they have been here for at least 5 years and do not have criminal convictions. According to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, anybody born or naturalized in the United States or under its jurisdiction is automatically a citizen, so there are large numbers of families in the U.S. who are of “mixed status,” for example including one undocumented parent, one legal U.S. resident parent (legally in the country but not a citizen), and U.S.-born and therefore U.S. citizen children.
  • The much-criticized Secure Communities Program, which blurs the line between the responsibilities of local police and immigration enforcement agents, and which is blamed for increases in racial profiling of Latino people especially, is reined in a bit. It should be noted that there has been a wave of refusals by local governments to cooperate with this program already.

Unfortunately, another large category of the undocumented is not covered, namely parents and other family members of youthful DACA recipients. The fight will go on to include them, as well as for other improvements.

But overall, the many immigrants’ rights, labor and other organizations which have up to now been pressuring the White House to take this executive action will now be fighting hard against those politicians, mostly in the Republican Party, who have announced that they plan to stop or reverse it.

The number of people who will benefit has been estimated by the Migration Policy Institute as at least 3.78 million, not including the original beneficiaries of the 2012 DACA program or the new expansion of DACA for youth which could add another 1.5 million. Thus the total could be 5.2 million potential beneficiaries. This would bring relief to just under half of the estimated 11 million undocumented believed to be in the country.

Certain states will see very large numbers eligible for this relief: California with 1.57 million; Texas with 743,000, New York with 338,000, and Illinois with 280,000. This will have profound consequences for state policies such as the issuance of drivers’ licenses. Little noticed in the corporate press is the fact that immediately all working people covered by these new categories of relief, including the DACA expansion, will be in a much better position to join unions and to fight for their rights on the job and in the community.

Triumph of a mass movement

The president’s announcement was the product of a massive grassroots movement of almost unprecedented scale, and an illustration of the fact that such movements can triumph even when the legislative process is stalemated. Many helped, but the real heroes are the working class immigrants themselves.

In 1986, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed IRCA, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, a mixed bag of legislation which, however, allowed about 1.6 million undocumented immigrants to become legalized. In the same period, other legalization programs, including a special one for undocumented agricultural workers, brought the total legalized up to nearly 4 million.

Labor and community activists were involved in helping thousands of these immigrants through the paperwork required to benefit from the IRCA “amnesty,” as it was called. They also were involved in teaching English as a second language and civics courses that were required to benefit for the program. In many cases, the now legalized, former undocumented workers ended up with a better knowledge of U.S. history and government than many born U.S. citizens possess.  Subsequently many of them became citizens, active members of unions and community organizations, and voters, contributing mightily to struggles that have benefited all working people.

A new wave of immigrants…

After the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, under President Clinton, the number of undocumented immigrants sharply increased, as Mexican farmers could no longer compete with agricultural imports from the U.S. and Canada, and were driven out of agriculture and across the border. The U.S.-fomented civil wars in Central America had already created a wave of refugees in the United States from those countries; as the U.S. would not give them asylum or refugee status, they too became “undocumented immigrants.”

So the push for a second “amnesty” began. Progressive changes in the U.S. labor movement played an important role. Under the presidency of John Sweeney from 1995 to 2009, and much more so under his successor, Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO, the Change to Win Federation, and numerous individual unions, including the independent United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Union (UE), all played stronger roles, including mass demonstrations and political pressure campaigns.

At the other end of the political spectrum, anti-immigrant agitation was ratcheted up by reactionary nativist organizations such as the Minutemen, Numbers USA, and the “Center for Immigration Studies.” Crackdowns on immigrants, such as the one imposed by proposition 187 sponsored by former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in California, led the immigrant communities to organize more effectively in their own defense. This became an unstoppable process. In spite of wave after wave of racist, lying propaganda campaigns, the cause of the immigrants picked up ever greater support in the wider community.

In 2005, the right-wing Republican Congressman George Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) sponsored an extreme anti-immigrant bill in the House of Representatives, and it passed. To prevent it from becoming law, immigrants’ rights organizations and their labor, church and community allies organized immense demonstrations on May Day 2006, with millions participating all over the country. Although the Sensenbrenner bill did not pass the Senate, efforts to pass a “comprehensive immigration reform” with a legalization program also failed.

At this point, some in the pro-immigrant movement began to call for an executive branch moratorium on deportations. But under what remained of the George W. Bush administration, raids and deportations sharply increased.

…and new expectations

Barack Obama’s campaign for president in 2008 created expectations that, when elected, he would reduce the deportations and push hard for a legislative reform of the immigration system. In June of 2009, major labor and community leaders from across the country came together at Jane Addams Hull House in Chicago to announce a legislative proposal acceptable both to labor and business interests. This, however, was not adopted or promoted by the White House, which wanted a plan tilted a little more toward business so that it could be passed with bipartisan and not just Democratic support. Obama’s then White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had told immigrants’ rights activists not to expect immigration reform action in Congress until the first year of an Obama second term as president, beginning in 2013. In the interim, the pace of deportations continued at a high level.

With families being broken apart everywhere as breadwinners were deported, and with no possibility of legislative relief in sight (the GOP took control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections), the immigrants’ rights movement turned more and more toward pressuring the White House to sharply scale back deportations. The call for “executive action” was taken up by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and others. Meanwhile, undocumented immigrant youth organized the movement of the Dreamers to advance demands that children brought to the United States without papers be given relief so as to work and attend college. There were many courageous actions by people who, if arrested for civil disobedience, faced not just jail or a fine but deportation also.

In 2011, Obama asked government attorneys to explore what administrative relief could be promulgated without congressional action. The response was: A whole lot. At that point the government announced that it would use “prosecutorial discretion” in arresting and deporting people, targeting only people with criminal records. However, this program never got very far, partly because the group of people defined as “criminals” was much too large, and partly because the Homeland Security bureaucracy never implemented it.

Much more effective was the 2012 announcement of DACA. The fact that the anti-immigrant right, including the Republicans in Congress, had no effective response to it greatly encouraged the immigrants’ rights movement to demand “DACA for all.” The pressure for executive action to protect the undocumented grew exponentially, gaining the support of the AFL-CIO, major religious denominations and other sectors. President Obama made a series of promises to issue a new DACA-like executive order, but postponed it several times under political pressure from within the Democratic Party as well as the Republicans. Each time, Obama said he was giving the Republicans in the House one last chance to pass immigration reform similar to that passed by the Senate earlier in the term, but there was no response. Earlier this year he promised to announce his executive action at the end of the summer. But the Republicans took advantage of the double panics about “child migrants” and Ebola to stoke anti-immigrant fears; and Democratic Senate candidates pressured Obama to delay the announcement until after the 2014 midterms. This greatly annoyed the immigrants’ rights movement, and evidently did nothing to help the Democrats retain the Senate, or reduce the GOP majority in the House.

Now what?

The Republicans made gangster-like threats against the president before his announcement, and these threats will now be made even more loudly. If, as some predict, the Republicans “shut down the government,” they will shoot themselves in the foot: Voters’ memories of the last shutdown are not positive. Lawsuits will not prosper: The government’s lawyers did their homework and there are many clear precedents for this kind of administrative action, even under Republican presidents going back to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Republicans may block Obama’s appointments, but they have been doing that anyway. Republicans threaten to strip funding for the enforcement of the new program; we shall see what happens with that.

There are many tasks left to be done. Some categories not covered by the executive order need to be brought out of the shadows, perhaps under another order in the future. Abuses of detention facilities will continue and this country’s asylum policies will still be harsh and ungenerous. Even immigrants benefiting from the executive order will not be eligible for health services under ACA or for other government benefits. There is no path to citizenship stated or implied in the declaration.

All the relief is temporary and interim and, many activists fear, subject to repeal by the next administration, so the struggle for a legislative solution must continue, though it may take quite a while depending on what happens in the elections of 2016 and beyond.

Most of all, the order does nothing to deal with the reasons undocumented immigrants come to the United States in the first place, which has to do with the extreme inequality between and within nations under neo-liberal trade arrangements such as NAFTA and CAFTA, its Central American version.

But that is another story.

Photo: Chicago, Immigrant Youth Justice League rally, March 10, 2011, People’s World.



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.