What next for immigrant rights?

At present, there is no chance that any legislation benefiting undocumented immigrants and their families could pass at the federal level. The numbers are not there in the House, or to overcome a Senate filibuster. The movement which brought millions into the streets in 2006 and 2007 to stop anti-immigrant legislation and to call for the legalization of undocumented immigrants has not given up the legislative fight, but is currently emphasizing administrative relief measures, and state and local struggles.

After much struggle from the grassroots, the Obama administration offered two new concessions to the immigrant rights movement in 2011:

  • Use of “prosecutorial discretion” by Homeland Security to tentatively close deportation proceedings against undocumented immigrants who have U.S. citizen spouses and children, who came here when they themselves were minor children (the DREAM Act youth), and who have not been convicted of serious crimes. Theoretically, such immigrants, though not automatically transformed into Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) eligible for citizenship, should get work permits also.
  • Not yet in force, a fix for a problem created by a 1996 law which traps undocumented immigrants who become eligible to legalize their status through marriage in a horrible Catch-22 situation: Before, to apply for an LPR visa through one’s U.S. citizen spouse, one had to go back to one’s country of origin, apply there at the U.S. consulate and wait for the visa. But the law slapped a three- to 10-year prohibition on such people returning to the United States, effectively making it impossible for U.S. citizens trying to adjust their husbands’ or wives’ status to do so. Rather than see their families split up, or their U.S. citizen spouses or children forced to emigrate to be with them, most people in this situation have remained undocumented. The new policy would permit many to apply for the visa without leaving the country until the last step, invalidating the three- to 10-year ban.

These two administrative modifications would not legalize the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants now in this country. But they would end the extremely painful and disruptive situation of family break-up for many thousands.

Unfortunately, the “prosecutorial discretion” program is going slowly and not very well. Three hundred thousand cases of people under deportation orders are currently under review but only about 7.5 percent so far are being resolved in favor of the immigrants. Homeland Security is being excessively strict about what it considers a serious crime. Immigration attorneys warn undocumented immigrants not to go running over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to try to get in on this program, and to make sure they are represented by an attorney.

The administration has issued preliminary guidelines for the second program, the visa waiver for undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens. The National Immigration Forum has identified some points on which the proposed changes could be improved.

There is a great degree of frustration in the immigrant rights movement and in immigrant communities with the Obama administration for the continued high level of deportations and for the Secure Communities program which deputizes local, state and county police to do immigration enforcement work, intensifying racial profiling.

Recent announcements by Homeland Security that Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia will now be brought under Secure Communities, whether they like it or not, are a major grievance.


But can the Republicans gain electoral traction from this frustration?

So far, the best that Republican candidate Mitt Romney, advised by hard-core anti-immigrant personalities such as Kris Kobach, one of the authors of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, has been able to offer is “self-deportation”: to make life so miserable here for undocumented immigrants and their families that they will leave the country on their own. This strategy is cruel and immoral. It also won’t work. Undocumented immigrants will merely be forced to accept worse jobs with lower pay and more dangerous working conditions. This will tend to pull down the wages and working conditions of all workers.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives just voted to weaken the Violence Against Women Act, by removing provisions of current law that stop the deportation of victims of human trafficking or domestic violence. Police chiefs opposed this action, pointing out that human traffickers and partner abusers cannot be convicted if their victims fear that testifying against them will lead to deportation.

The claim by possible Republican vice-presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio and Congressman David Rivera, both Florida Republicans, that they are going to bring about the DREAM Act (without an essential element of the original, namely a path to citizenship) has to be evaluated in the light of the certainty that fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives would block it and Romney as president would veto it. We also have not heard either Rubio or Romney speak out against the several state laws which target immigrants for repressive action, in Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina and other places.

So it is extremely unlikely that many Latino voters other than conservative Cuban-Americans will vote Republican.

However, disappointment over the immigration issue might affect turnout on Election Day. Obama and the Democrats won in 2008 partly because of an unusually high turnout of youth, low-income workers and minorities, including Latinos. In 2010, the Democrats lost ground in Congress partly because the turnout of these sectors was down.

It is essential that the two initiatives by the Obama administration (the prosecutorial discretion to cancel deportation orders, and the new expedited family unity policy) be made to work to the benefit of the largest possible number of undocumented immigrants and their families. A pullback on the Secure Communities Program and more active opposition by the federal government to the anti-immigrant state laws are other essential steps.

Though far from what the country needs and immigrants want (no honest working person should be deported, period) these steps would rescue the situation of many thousands of families. This, combined with the vicious attitude of the GOP, would redound to the Democrats’ benefit in November.

Photo: 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.