Not a starting point for reform

April 5, 2010

Renee Saucedo, the community empowerment coordinator at La Raza Centro Legal in San Francisco, analyzes some of the current proposals for immigration "reform."

RECENTLY, WE witnessed the powerful marches of immigrant communities in Washington, D.C., and other cities in support of "immigration reform." These righteous protests allowed those impacted by unfair immigration laws to remind lawmakers of what they are demanding: legalization for themselves and their families.

But some of the groups that organized the march in Washington, led by beltway advocates like the National Immigration Forum and the National Council of La Raza, are supporting policies, beyond legalization, that actually harm immigrant communities.

Reform Immigration for America (RIFA), the coalition spearheading a national immigration reform campaign, recently came out in support of the conservative proposal authored by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). In a recent e-mail, RIFA celebrated President Obama's support for this "bipartisan blueprint for reform" and mentioned the rally in San Francisco as further support for a "bipartisan bill."

It is horrifying that immigrant rights groups would support a proposal that would have devastating impacts on immigrants. Among other things, the Graham-Schumer plan proposes an intensification of raids, detentions, deportations and militarism of the U.S.-Mexico border. Over 350,000 undocumented migrants were incarcerated last year in private detention centers. This number will rise under the bipartisan plan.

Demonstrating for action on immigrant rights in Washington, D.C., in March 2010
Demonstrating for action on immigrant rights in Washington, D.C., in March 2010 (Vanissa Chan)

Graham-Schumer also proposes creating a biometric national identity card that everyone, including U.S. citizens, must carry to prove authorization to work. This means that people working without papers will be fired and even imprisoned. And they propose to expand guest-worker programs that have been documented to be highly exploitative. It will be harder for immigrant workers to defend their rights, organize unions and raise wages.

In the area of legalization, the Graham-Schumer proposal involves "going to the back of the line of prospective immigrants to earn the opportunity to work toward lawful permanent residence." It offers no real alternative to the current system and makes it almost impossible for most to legalize their status.

As the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR) states in a March 20 press release, "[The bipartisan blueprint] sets a low bar for the debate, placing harsh and failed enforcement strategies at its heart in hopes of drawing conservative support, regardless of the human rights consequences of such policies."

THE "BIPARTISAN blueprint" outlined by Democrats and Republicans in Congress, and supported by President Obama, is a horrible starting point for legalization.

Many respectable advocates argue that, while Graham-Schumer may not be the ticket, we should support less-onerous proposals, such as the bill introduced by Luis Gutierrez, the Illinois Congressman in the House of Representatives.

"It's best to get at least residency for some, even if this means accepting provisions which would lead to further criminalization and exploitation for others," they say. "It's the best we're going to get." They make a strategy argument rather than a political or ideological one.

However, Gutierrez's bill, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity Act of 2009, offers benefits to some, but criminalizes the vast majority of undocumented immigrants. While it eliminates the program encouraging collaboration between local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, provides an avenue for undocumented youth to apply for residency, and improves the oversight in the current detention system, it does little in the area of legalization.

The Gutierrez bill creates a new "conditional non-immigrant visa status" (CNIS) and those who qualify could apply, with no guarantee, for residency. The only real difference between this proposal and the current system is that applicants' biometrics would be registered with the Department of Homeland Security, and they would have to wait at least six years to gain their residency. Most undocumented immigrants I've spoken to about this proposal do not consider it to be beneficial.

Even if the Gutierrez bill was favorable in the area of legalization, it still does more damage than good. Among other things, it increases border militarization and enforcement, raids and deportations, instead of addressing the economic and social issues that fuel migration across the border. The bill also mandates the use of an "employment verification" system (E-Verify), requiring all employers to fire employees whose names do not match their Social Security numbers.

Finally, the bill creates a commission with an anti-worker character, since its stated goal is to pursue "employment-based immigration policies that promote economic growth and competitiveness, while minimizing job displacement, wage depression, and unauthorized unemployment." The establishment of this commission is the first step towards setting up an expanded guest-worker program.

OF COURSE, the human rights implications of both the Graham-Schumer and Gutierrez proposals are deadly and catastrophic. Under both, more families will be separated, and more people will suffer and die while attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

More workers will be exploited and discriminated against. Employers will still be able to exploit cheap immigrant labor, while temporary workers would be barred from many of the benefits and rights of U.S. citizenship--as well as from many of the labor protections guaranteed under U.S. laws.

And undocumented migration to the U.S. will continue to be conveniently mischaracterized as a "criminal," or "illegal," issue, rather than as a consequence of economic trade agreements and political repression that displaces millions. Employers want to keep it this way to ensure their supply of cheap, vulnerable, exploitable labor.

No immigrant, labor or human rights organization can in good conscience rationalize the support of the Graham-Schumer or Gutierrez proposals.

Instead, we must hold steadfast to what immigrant communities really want and deserve: immediate legalization for the millions of undocumented and a reasonable legalization process for future immigrants; an end to the criminalization of immigrants, workplace enforcement and raids; the repeal of employer sanctions; the expansion of family visas to end the backlogs in family reunification; an end to the detention and deportation system; the end of border militarization and protection of human rights of border communities; an end to guest-worker programs; and the protection and expansion of civil rights, labor rights and due process for immigrants.

We must continue to organize around just immigration policies in terms of labor mobility and human rights, not as an issue of national security and enforcement.

In 1986, employer sanctions were traded in exchange for legalization for some. This proved to be disastrous in the long run for millions of workers who cannot get work legally or who are discriminated against by employers.

Why are we chopping off our bargaining power away so early in the game? Why don't we demand everything that we want from the start, knowing that we will probably have to compromise on some things as the process moves forward? I don't understand why advocates believe we must begin negotiations with the lowest-common denominator.

I believe that we should never fight for the rights of some at the expense of others. Legalization for some will be an empty victory if, at the same time, most undocumented immigrants are facing higher exploitation, suffering and even death.

We must continue to support immigrant communities in their struggle to obtain a fair legalization law. We must not allow certain advocacy organizations to negotiate away rights on their behalf.

By organizing, marching, etc., we must continue to demand just immigration laws and to work toward ending policies which criminalize and exploit members of our community. In the long run, the immigrant rights movement will be stronger for it.

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