Why this Round of Immigration Reform is Not so Different


Pramila Jayapal’s article titled, “Why this Round of Immigration Reform is Different” in ColorLines Magazine overlooks some critical factors in the struggle for fair and just immigration reform.  It is certainly the case that the immigrant rights movement is stronger today than it was during the last round of the congressional debate, as Jayapal points out.   She is also right that the show of force at the ballot box by immigrant voters and their allies helped to catapult immigration reform to the top of the political agenda for both Democrats and Republicans.

But does this bipartisan change of heart in Congress mean that we can expect a bill that will meet the needs and aspirations of the 11 million undocumented immigrants now residing in the United States?  Not!  Although the Republican Party lost the election, their conservative ideology still holds tremendous sway over both parties and in the public psyche.

Yes, a door has opened for immigration reform—but the road to reform is a rocky one and it’s quite possible that what we see at the end falls way below the standard for fairness. The political line-up on immigration in both the House and the Senate continues to be a dangerous one—and the devil will be in the details of any “deal” on immigration reform.

It is highly questionable if there will be a fair and just path to permanent legal status for people without visas, as Seth Freed Wessler points out in another ColorLines article, “What to Expect from Immigration Reform and When to Expect It”.  While some type of legalization program appears to have some political teeth, there is still considerable contention over its depth and breadth. As Wessler suggests, there will likely be many, many people who will be left out the legalization program for various reason—they can’t prove how long they’ve been in the country, they have a “criminal background”, they been deported in the past and returned, they are a family with gay or lesbian partners, etc.  And in all likelihood, it may take many years, up to a decade, before the promised legalization comes to fruition, leaving those who get in trouble with the law or who lose their employment left out in the cold.

In addition, there will probably be an extension of guest worker programs that have led to the unbridled exploitation of low wage immigrant workers. We can also expect an employment verification program to be part of a package. In addition, the Republicans are threatening to cut back on family reunification and diversity visas.  These will all be huge fights and the odds are not on the side of justice.  And we’re not even talking here about the need for some fundamental revamping of the “legal” immigration system, which is also needed.

As in the last round of Congressional immigration debate, the core immigration enforcement mechanisms that have led to record detentions and deportations, border–crossing deaths, and massive human rights violations along the border and in the interior will probably remain intact and we continue to hear talk of increases in enforcement, particularly along sections of the U.S.-Mexico border.

A new “Enforcement Reform Caucus,” of immigration advocacy groups, recently formed to push for immigration reform that moves from “enforcement first” to “human rights first,” anticipating the stakes in a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enact meaningful reforms. This caucus stands opposed to “trade-offs” that will sacrifice the rights and opportunities of one group of immigrants for another in a reform package.  Surely it will not be enough to just champion “immigration reform” or even “a path to citizenship.”  All elements of a deal on immigration have to be addressed and immigrant communities, advocates and supporters need to be very aware of the entire package of reforms, good and bad.

Not surprisingly, nowhere in the debate on immigration reform is there a mention of the root causes of migration—including free trade agreements and structural adjustment programs (SAPS).  Multi-national corporate and U.S. foreign policies continue to devastate economies throughout the Global South. Wars, climate change, persecution abound. For survival, to support themselves and their families, people have been forced to move.  The United Nations says that there are 215 million people who do not reside in the country of their birth. Immigration reform, with all its limitations, will not address the destructive economic and foreign policies that contribute to unprecedented global migration.

All this said, it is incumbent upon immigrant communities and their allies to fight tooth-and-nail for fair, humane immigration reform.  And we cannot harbor any illusions that justice is just around the corner; whatever gets signed into law will set the stage for a new round of struggle for fair and just immigration laws and policies.

In the short and the long term, the immigrant rights movement will benefit by coming together with the parallel movements for racial equity and economic justice to push for a comprehensive agenda that benefits all poor and working class communities.  It is no accident that in the 2012 election exit poll conducted by the Washington Post, African Americans polled the highest in support for legal status for undocumented immigrants (81%), even higher the Hispanics (77%)!  It is their long history of struggling against white supremacy and economic exploitation that explains why African Americans have greater empathy and support for immigrants facing the same forces of oppression.  And while there is still a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment among African Americans to be overcome, they can be strategic allies in the continuing struggle to build a new human rights movement capable of winning social and economic justice for all.

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