Dave Moore, a socialist in the US, reports on what an Obama administration means for immigrants’ rights. This is an updated version of an article Dave wrote for Red Banner.
In the spring of 2006, immigrant uprisings swept across the United States, sparked by a vicious bill to criminalize undocumented workers. In city after city, protesters held a sea of placards; one message recurred: ‘Today we march, Tomorrow we vote’.
On November 4th, that promise was kept – and it proved decisive.
Fast-changing demographics and massive voter mobilisation allowed Latinos to impact the US election as never before. Exit polls indicated that 3 million more Latinos took part than in 2004 – a leap from 7.6 to 10.5 million. Battleground states Colorado, Nevada, Florida and New Mexico were carried for Barack Obama by a surge of Latino votes; prominent anti-immigrant legislators were dumped.
This article traces the immigrant rights struggle from the marches to the ballot box and sketches the challenges it faces under the new administration.
From marching to voting
Latinos – interchangeably called Hispanics – represent the largest minority group in the United States at 46 million (15.4% of the population). History belies the stereotype: the border divided many Latinos following the seizure of huge tracts of Mexican territory by nineteenth century imperial war. Unwanted from the outset, Latino experience has long been one of persecution and expulsion.
Today, 60% of US Latinos are native-born citizens (a status conferred automatically to those born of immigrant parents). The rest, immigrants from Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and other countries of Central and Latin America, mainly have legal status as naturalised citizens or permanent residents. Of an estimated undocumented populace of 12 million, Latinos comprise 9.6 million – approximately one fifth of all Hispanics. Their numbers expanded markedly through the economic dislocation wrought by NAFTA – increasing by more than 40% since 2000.
Two additional trends fuel the fires of the anti-immigrant right – internal migration and higher birth rates. Latino populations have been dispersing markedly from their historic focus in the southwest and major urban centres, reaching smaller cities and towns across the nation; they also now contribute more than half of all US population growth, the majority from births rather than migration.
Latinos are no homogeneous group, but the experience for most has been bitter in the post-9/11 era. Recast as a ‘national security’ threat, undocumented workers were soon faced with a sharp increase in raids and deportations. States and localities began enacting experimental laws designed to squeeze those without papers. Nativist groups grew in numbers and vehemence. All Latinos felt the chill.
Many Republicans saw electoral advantage in stirring the pot. Others, more strategically, saw opportunity to fundamentally reshape immigration law to better suit capitalist profit. They looked to a cross-party compromise that would include large scale legalization: 2005’s McCain-Kennedy Bill. While it floundered in the Senate, anti-immigrant Republicans in the House rallied behind a very different plan. It would criminalize not just the undocumented but anyone deemed to be assisting their presence in the United States. Menacing, if deeply unrealistic, it threatened capital with massive dislocation. Yet, at the year’s end, the bill passed – and it sparked fully-fledged Latino revolt: huge marches in Washington DC, then Chicago, Milwaukee, Phoenix, next a million on the streets of Los Angeles, on and on, city after city; by April 10th, a National Day of Action spanned over 100 cities; for May 1st, another immense wave of marches. International Workers Day – all but moribund in the US – was spectacularly revived as the ‘Great American Boycott’ –
no work, no school, no sales and no buying.
It was an unprecedented high point for immigrant struggles, yet the upsurge was already faltering. April had brought a new Senate bill, far less punitive, that rehashed a clumsy mix of increased border enforcement, a temporary worker programme and, for those resident over 5 years, a protracted path to legalisation. Corporate to its core, the evolving bill addressed some of the movement’s demands and spurred hopes, debate and division. DC policy groups, national organisations and key union figures clutched at a fragile compromise – and feared an escalating movement would jeopardise it. They saw those building for May 1st more as threats than allies with their unequivocal demand for amnesty and rejection of the temporary worker programme. Thus, even as bolder action was being built, leaders tried to stand it down with a competing message of caution. The grass-roots response was still dramatic and widely halted production, but it was greatly blunted. The moment was quickly lost; legislation stalled and mobilisations waned. Raids and deportations increased, while the outgoing Congress pledged billions to militarising the Mexican border.
These events bolstered a voter mobilisation strategy for November’s mid-term elections across the movement, spurred on by foundations willing to fund efforts to raise historically low Latino civic participation and citizenship rates. Thus, groups immersed themselves in registering and turning out new voters, scrupulously non-partisan efforts that nevertheless impacted several key House and Senate races and contributed to the return of a Democrat inclined Congress.
Within days came a fresh government offensive: massive raids on meatpacking plants across six states, with over 1,200 workers arrested. In a new move, 270 were slapped with criminal charges. The message was designed for Democrats as much as the movement.
As the new Congress began, President Bush urged a renewed reform effort, calling for a ‘Grand Bargain’ that embraced business demands for an expanded temporary worker program. The resulting bill required yet more border militarisation, and offered only highly punitive and costly legalisation. On top, it demanded 600,000 annual ‘guest worker’ visas. These would establish large-scale indentured servitude: immigrant workers tied firmly to a single employer, on non-renewable visas, with no hope of permanent status and ripe for grotesque abuse. Amid the shifting sands of negotiations, sweeteners were added and some Democrats attempted to remove or blunt guest worker provisions. The mass marches were renewed on May 1st, smaller but still powerful. Amid fevered lobbying, the bill progressively worsened. Two months later, it was dead.
Many states and cities responded with a renewed push to legislate their own anti-immigrant measures.
Meanwhile, the Administration ramped up its attrition: more workplace raids and new schemes to force employers to purge workers with ‘flagged’ Social Security numbers; pursuit of individuals with unexecuted deportation orders became de facto community sweeps. Despite the rhetoric, none of the tactics could reduce the undocumented population, nor did they seriously strive to. Instead, they aimed to further marginalise and subordinate immigrant workers, appease anti-immigrant voters and keep Democrats marshalled behind a strong ‘enforcement’ agenda.
Such was the backdrop as the lengthy presidential race began. Immigration ranked as a consistent ‘top three’ concern for voters. Yet, by the time Barack Obama was confirmed to contest John McCain, it had become the elephant in the room, all but exiled from the campaign trail. As a past sponsor of immigration reform, McCain was the one Republican with a coating of palatability for Latinos and, despite a platform dragged rightwards for the party’s nativist base, he rejected using immigration as a weapon. This owed little to principle and much to the electoral map. In crucial contests, McCain needed significant Latino votes. Instead, they rejected him emphatically.
Obama carried Latinos more than two to one; amongst immigrant voters, he polled 78%.
But while Democrats reaped the dividends, they owed much to a vast array of Latino and immigrant groups who again worked tirelessly to register voters, mobilise turnout and encourage legal residents to pursue citizenship. It was a massive, year-long effort powerfully backed by Spanish language media. Even against 2006, the pool of potential voters had increased dramatically: hundreds of thousands of young Latinos, many with immigrant parents, were now of voting age, while pro-active campaigns, anti-immigrant rhetoric and the prospect of a large fee hike had combined to spur a record number of naturalisations.
Yet even while the movement celebrated success, the all-consuming pursuit of these new voters, with its exclusive focus on citizens, drained many immigrant rights groups, pushing them to neglect their base or give it an ancillary role.
Immigration reform and the ‘First Hundred Days’
When communities are terrorised by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel, when all that is happening, the system just isn’t working, and we need to change it.
Barack Obama speaking to a pro-immigrant audience, July 2008
With the election concluded, and the Obama-era looming, the movement needed a rapid change of gear. Its first response was a mis-step. A coalition of national groups announced a march in Washington DC for the day after inauguration, aiming to draw 100,000 to the capital to remind Obama of his fine words and demand a moratorium on raids. This was rapidly scaled back and then diffused to small local actions, part caution, part logistics as the scale of attendance for the inauguration event became clear. Nevertheless, a strong humanitarian appeal to end raids has continued as the movement’s overriding theme, drawing considerable support from faith-based groups.
Yet this moral outrage squares off against a truly corporate monster. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is located at the very heart of the Department of Homeland Security, the Bush regime’s post 9/11 battering ram for a far-reaching assault on civil liberties and a domestic war on immigrants. It has constructed a massive immigration-industrial complex within its domain, recruiting thousands of well-paid, well-armed shock-troops to visit new forms of terror on immigrant communities; it received almost limitless budgets for immigration prisons and border fortifications, feeding obscene billions to Halliburton, Boeing and Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison provider. Over a five-year period, CCA was handed federal largesse to detain almost a million people in deportation, rising to 33,000 beds per day, while moves to press criminal, not civil, charges against many detainees had begun to offer even higher profits from longer, more lucrative incarcerations. On the eve of Obama’s victory, Virginia investors planned a new $21 million private prison to reap burgeoning federal contracts. Clearly they did not expect the trough to run dry.
Thus, while Obama quickly pledged to empty Guantanamo on taking office, those who hoped for boldness on raids and detentions were disappointed. Incoming head of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, predictably ordered a departmental review. Early indications suggest it may bring a heightened focus on apprehending ‘criminal aliens’ (i.e. those with felony convictions), possibly relieving some pressure on the mass of the undocumented. Detention centres, the source of a growing catalogue of horrors and deaths, will be told to clean up their act. Tough gestures can also be expected, including the bolstering of some areas of enforcement. In short, the engine will be re-tuned, yet it may lose little of its familiar hum.
A similar outcome may await a second Bush legacy, E-Verify, an electronic system to check new hires and reject supposedly undocumented workers. Already in use in tens of thousands of workplaces, its ‘voluntary’ roll-out to businesses was increasingly turned into compulsion by both federal contracts and state laws. In February, Republicans demanded that businesses be required to adopt it as a condition for receiving funds from the stimulus package. Democrats rebuffed the attempt. But while the system is deeply flawed and notoriously metes out ‘collateral damage’ to many legal residents, it is far from clear that Democrats will halt funding for the pilot programme, due for renewal in March. Napolitano declares as a ‘strong supporter’ and well-organised anti-immigrant forces will mobilise their base to lobby Democrats, many of whom already believe it can be ‘improved’. Although union, civil rights and many business groups will join immigrant organisations in pressing for it to be scrapped, they will need to make a good fight.
Securing comprehensive immigration reform – including a path to legalisation for undocumented workers – remains the big goal of the immigrant movement. Before the economic crisis unfolded, Obama pledged a new attempt at major legislation during his first year in office. Immigrant advocates lobbying the administration believe that still holds good and hope for movement between September and March. They will contend that reform is inextricable from recovery and keep the administration mindful of the Latino vote. Although rising domestic job losses will disarm champions of a ‘guest worker’ programme, any emerging bill would likely be cut from similar cloth to past bi-partisan formulas and be deeply problematic for the movement.
More imminently, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act – the election payback sought by the US labour movement – would dramatically enhance immigrant rights, cutting loose a wave of new organising better shielded from union-busting attacks. Immigrant and Latino workers, already central to many recent union victories, would be both prominent leaders and major beneficiaries, while the push could also help re-energise the immigrant rights struggle at a crucial time. The bill’s champions include Obama’s pick for Labour Secretary, Hilda Solis, herself the daughter of Latino immigrants. However, at the time of writing, business interests were mobilising efforts to block her appointment – an opening shot in their determined fight against EFCA.
Obama’s ‘First Hundred Days’ end on May 1st. By then, the immigrant rights movement may have little to celebrate, but its activists are sure to be back, proud and determined, on streets across the United States.