Immigration Reform Withers on the Vine

By Kent Paterson

Widely credited for helping Barack Obama and the Democrats sweep to victory in 2008, many new immigrants and their family members cast their votes for a party that promised a pathway to legalization for millions of undocumented people still living in the shadows. Nearly two years later, not only are immigrants still waiting but more and more of them are getting deported.

“I’m not very optimistic about any kind of humanitarian reform,” said Diana Bustamante, executive director of the Colonias Development Council (CDC) in Las Cruces, N.M. “It’s business as usual as far as I am concerned.”

Bustamante’s group works closely with immigrant residents of rural Dona Ana County. A new border wall, Border Patrol highway checkpoints and roving patrols hem in local communities.

At a recent talk in Las Cruces, New Mexico State University sociologist Alison Newby told a crowd that more than 400 public and privately-contracted immigrant detention facilities imprison more than 440,000 people, at a cost surpassing $1.7 billion annually to the taxpayers.

“Not only are families potentially losing their breadwinners, it’s costing us to keep people in immigration detention,” Newby said.

With the Obama administration continuing the deportation policy of the Bush administration, albeit in quieter manner, immigrant advocates are growing increasingly frustrated with both the White House and the Democratic Party leadership.

In a curious sense of political timing, the hope of reform was dangled to the public at the very moment Congress was finishing its politically-draining, marathon battle over health insurance legislation.

Only days before the massive March 21 pro-legalization rally in Washington, D.C., President Obama praised an immigration reform blueprint unveiled by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

The Schumer-Graham framework emphasized tighter border security, a guest worker program, the expansion of the controversial E-Verify employment eligibility system, a biometric Social Security card, and a “tough but fair” path to legalization for undocumented residents.

Pro-immigrant groups reacted with a mixture of cautious optimism and sharp criticism. Schumer-Graham, the Oakland-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights maintained, “would extend and deepen harsh enforcement practices that have caused trauma and separation for immigration families, fostered racial profiling and led to tragic deaths at the US-Mexico border for migrants seeking a better life.”

The American Civil Liberties Union blasted the senators’ proposal for biometric worker identification as a “thinly-disguised” attempt to implement a national ID.

“It is unacceptable to force every American worker to be fingerprinted in order to work,” said the ACLU’s Christopher Calabrese.

The Schumer-Graham blueprint, however, may never translate into legislation. Shortly before the House passed its health insurance bill on March 21, Sen. Graham, virtually the only Republican senator to support overhauling immigration law at this juncture, linked the fate of immigration reform to health care.

“The first casualty of the Democratic health care bill will be immigration reform,” Graham was quoted as saying. “If the health care bill goes through this weekend, that will, in my view, pretty much kill any chance of immigration reform passing the Senate this year.”

Encompassing groups ranging from the Minutemen to the Tea Party against Amnesty and Illegal Immigration, a resurgent anti-legalization movement is staging demonstrations and pressuring Congress. With unemployment clinging to an official rate of 9.7%, the anti-legalization forces are wagering that politicians will be receptive to a message of preserving jobs for “Americans.”

Meanwhile, an immigration reform bill introduced last December by Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois languishes in the House.

While immigration reform withers on the vine in Washington, immigrant advocates are taking aim at the Department of Homeland Security and its Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) division. Prominent pro-immigrant activists have blasted ICE for mistreating mentally disturbed detainees, locking up dozens of Haitian earthquake survivors brought to Florida by US marines and allegedly pushing detention quotas.

In a phone conference with reporters, Frank Sharry, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Americas Voice organization, called ICE a “rogue agency” out-of-step with the reform-minded Obama White House. According to Sharry, a working group has been established by the White House to address complaints involving ICE.

Groups like the ACLU also slam the Department of Homeland Security’s 287(g) program that grants state and local law police departments federal immigration law enforcement authority but allegedly encourages racial profiling and civil rights abuses.

Friction between the immigrant community and the Obama Administration/Democrats could have political consequences next November. At a time when many environmentalists, single payer healthcare advocates, teachers and other elements of the Democratic Party base are becoming disillusioned with their party’s leadership, erosion of immigrant support in 2010 could well prove fatal for some Democrats.

If the President and Democrats don’t fulfill campaign pledges, editorialized Franco Cevallos, the publisher of the Nuestra Comunidad newspaper distributed in the Southwest, “Hispanics will not give them our votes.” Asserting that Latinos would not vote for “racists and anti-Hispanic Republicans,” Cevallos wrote that a third party could be an option.

Ultimately, President Obama’s message to the March 21 Washington rally pledging to do all within his power to achieve reform this coming year could go down as another broken promise.

For the CDC’s Diana Bustamante, the political wrangling in Washington has missed the bigger picture surrounding the immigration question. Said Bustamante:

“What really worries me is that there is little discussion about the root cause of migration in the sending countries, and the role that the US has in making sure that people are displaced by trade agreements, by environmental deregulation and the devastation that has caused people to become displaced from their land.”

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Mexico and the US Southwest.

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2010

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