Viewpoint: Concerns about Obama's Immigration Announcement

As immigrant detainees held a hunger strike in a for-profit detention facility last year, supporters rallied outside. Direct actions like these won Obama's recent executive order. But does it go far enough? Photo: Heather Villanueva.

There's lively debate over the president's recently announced executive order on immigration, which promises relief to some workers but may step up the threat to others. After Julia Kann interviewed two activists interpreting the news in our January issue, journalist David Bacon wrote in with a different view. Below, a sidebar showcases a few other labor voices. What do you think? Have your say in the comments. –Eds.

What Are Others Saying?

Excerpts from responses to Obama’s announcement, collected by Julia Kann:

“For millions of undocumented immigrants living in the shadows, this means a reprieve from fear of deportation and separation from loved ones. While today’s order does not fix our nation’s broken immigration system, this small level of relief will mean a lot to the families that it will impact.”
–D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE

“I am disturbed by reports that the President will continue to draw lines between deserving and undeserving immigrants that our movement long ago rejected. I am concerned that the President’s announcement will focus ICE’s devastating power on the members of our community that we refuse to leave behind—immigrants without children, LGBTQ immigrants, and the young immigrant men of color most likely to be targeted for arrests and convictions that will disqualify them for relief.”
–Angelica Chazaro, #Not1More Blue Ribbon Commission member, Seattle

“Many of our community members who have fought for this change now wonder if they will be excluded and persecuted. Many could now be fast-tracked for deportation, because they have been branded as criminals. We don’t support the arbitrary line between criminalized felons and spared families.”
–Carlos Garcia, director of Puente Arizona, Phoenix

“Many LGBTQ undocumented immigrants do not have families that are U.S. citizens or permanent residents that could allow them to qualify for the program… Many members of our LGBTQ community will be left out of the president’s plan.”
–Yesenia Valdez, national organizer for FAMILIA: Trans Queer Liberation Movement

“Make no mistake—this is not a substitute for comprehensive immigration reform. But it will prevent the deportation of many immigrants who would have qualified for citizenship under the Senate bill that passed over 500 days ago. Our members and their families have persevered through raids and deportations. Executive action is not all we need or deserve. But it is a step in the right direction and for that we are thankful.”
–Joe Hansen, president of United Food and Commercial Workers

I think your interview left out important concerns that many immigrant rights and labor activists have about Obama’s announcement. I’ll attach the Dignity Campaign statement that outlines some of them, and a statement by Maru Mora Villapando, the organizer of the hunger strikes at the Tacoma detention center, that outlines others. (See excerpts below.)

One factual note. Both your question about I-9 audits and the two answers were inadvertently misleading. The vast majority of people (tens of thousands at least) fired as a result of audits are fired at the demand of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), not as a result of employer retaliation. A large percentage, perhaps even a majority, are union members. Getting unions to defend them against government enforcement has been very difficult, as you know.

There will continue to be at least 7 million undocumented workers in the U.S., even if every one of the people qualified for Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) applies for and receives it, which is very unlikely. To date, less than half of the people qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA), for instance, have applied for and received it.

This means that there will be millions of workers subject to continued audits and firings. President Obama stressed in his announcement that he would strengthen workplace enforcement, which is counter to the demands of most unions and communities that have suffered from and spoken out about audits and firings. We will see an even greater effort by ICE to identify and fire workers as a result. Whether called by this name or not, it really envisions the further implementation of the E-Verify system.

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Excerpt from a statement by the Dignity Campaign for Real Immigration Reform, a network of groups and individuals calling for “an immigration reform bill based on human and labor rights”:

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We reject the trade-off the administration is making, in increasing enforcement and labor programs as a price our communities must pay for deportation relief for some. More enforcement on the U.S. Mexico border will mean even more people will die trying to cross, and greater violations of civil and human rights in border communities. We need to demilitarize the border, not to increase its militarization. The U.S. already spends more money on immigration enforcement, including the notorious Operation Streamline kangaroo courts, than all other federal law enforcement programs combined. It is inexcusable to spend even more.

The announcement that the administration will end the Secure Communities program, opposed by advocates, and even several state governments, is another good step, but only a small one. It leaves in place the 287g program that is the root of local enforcement collaborations with ICE. Even worse, the administration plans to expand the number of privately run prisons for immigrants, and the number of people held in them.

Silicon Valley tech titans have been pushing for more labor programs and work visas to maximize profits by keeping wages to tech workers down. By giving this industry access to more work visas and tying labor programs to deportation relief, the administration is taking a step towards lower wages and undermining the rights of all workers.

The administration has announced it will work with Republicans on negotiating more free trade deals, like the Trans Pacific Partnership. Two decades of experience with NAFTA tells us that these deals drive people into poverty, leading to more displacement and global migration, while US jobs are eliminated. We need to end these trade arrangements as part of a sensible immigration policy. We must change U.S. immigration law and trade policy to deal with the basic causes of migration, and to guarantee the human, civil and labor rights of migrants and all working people.

Excerpt from “Risking deportation for immigration reform: Undocumented activists who put themselves on the line deserve recognition,” an op-ed published in Al Jazeera America by Maru Mora Villalpando, community organizer and founder of Latino Advocacy, Inc.:

Over the last few weeks, I have been reading a lot about just whom to thank for Obama’s action.

I came to a realization that most of those who write or speak about immigration in the media are not activists or even immigrants, let alone undocumented ones. I am writing to tell the story I know, as an activist, an undocumented immigrant and a proud mother…

By the end of 2013, when other undocumented immigrants began taking actions to stop deportations, I felt that I could challenge that early advice from lawyers and other activists by coming out and openly joining these actions.

I had so much to lose by revealing my identity. For one, ICE could detain and separate me from my daughter at any point. I could lose clients at the business that I started in 2010. Once my daughter agreed with my decision to come out, we joined the local #Not1More deportation campaign to plan a civil disobedience action. It took months, but on Feb. 24, 10 of us locked arms and blocked the street outside the Tacoma detention center, shutting down the ICE office and halting deportations for a week.

We took this action because we all believed that a comprehensive immigration reform measure was not possible. We refused to serve either political party. We knew Obama has the power and the moral authority to act. Most important, we knew it was time to take the leadership back from big pro-immigrant groups.

We were criticized for pressuring Obama to take executive action on immigration and for calling for a stop to all deportations. We did not toe party lines or follow the deserving-vs.-undeserving-immigrants narrative. We focused on our communities’ suffering and exposing gatekeepers who shield access to the president and other Democratic Party leaders.

And we were right. After we stopped the deportation buses from leaving the Tacoma detention center in February, detainees organized three hunger strikes. In May, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., introduced a legislation that made private detention centers accountable and brought global attention to the U.S. deportation machine. He helped us arrange a meeting with the DHS and other members of Congress. All these actions, along with many other initiatives across the country, built one of the strongest pressure points that forced Obama to finally take executive action.

David Bacon is a California writer and photographer and was a union organizer for two decades. His latest book, recently published by Beacon Press, is The Right to Stay Home: How U.S. Policy Drives Mexican Migration. Read more about the hunger strike at the Tacoma, Washington, immigration detention center here.