Obama’s Immigration Moves—and the Need for Increased Resistance

December 1, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


“A lot of people are using the term bittersweet, but I don’t think that’s enough to describe the amount of emotion I’m feeling right now. Unfortunately my mom didn’t qualify and I didn’t know how to call my brothers and sister and tell them that it wasn’t our turn. I told them to call mom and tell her we love her. I can handle it, but I don’t know how well she’s taking it. It’s heartbreaking.... I can't celebrate this, because there are a lot of people left out”

A man in Chicago describing his reaction
to President Obama's November 20 speech on immigration.

Crossing the Border

June 25, 2014—Immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador crossing US-Mexico border are stopped in Granjeno, Texas by the U.S border patrol. AP photo

Over 10 million immigrants—people this system calls "illegal" because of where they were born—live every day of their lives with this: the awareness that their least little encounter with any authority could very quickly lead to disaster in their lives. A sword of arrest, deportation, and the threat of being torn apart from family and friends and the lives they had been struggling to make in this country hangs over the heads of immigrants constantly—this has been the reality of the lives of millions of people.

For several years a courageous struggle has burst forth among these same people. Many people, especially youth, have openly and bravely put themselves in harm's way and publicly declared themselves "illegal." "Not One More Deportation" has been a rallying cry for a movement involving people coast to coast, in large cities, small towns, and rural areas. People have persistently rallied, marched, held sit-ins and hunger strikes, and faced arrest in a movement demanding an end to the deportations, and reforms in the immigration system so that a path to citizenship is opened up for them. On more than one occasion, a speech of Obama's on immigration has been disrupted by protesters demanding that the deportations and breaking up of families stop.

Other battles have erupted that both exposed and opposed the harsh, heartless treatment inflicted upon immigrants. Cruel, barren and remote detention centers for immigrant children and immigrant families have been the focus of repeated protests and lawsuits. This past summer, people in the U.S. and around the world were shocked at the overwhelming cruelty of the military, police and legal measures taken by the U.S. government to detain and prepare for likely deportation tens of thousands of impoverished, desperate children from Central America.

The U.S. ruling class—and in particular the Obama administration and the Democrats—faces a dilemma. They need to contain and channel people's growing anger and discontent within bounds that don't do real damage to the capitalist imperialist system over which they preside and provide some sense of hope to the undocumented; at the same time they need to step up repressive measures aimed at immigrants, and prepare for even harsher, more sweeping repression. 

The hopes of many people rose during the early years of Obama's administration—hopes that the threat of deportation would end, that the basic humanity of immigrants would be recognized, that a path to some form of legal status would be opened up to people who had been in this country for years. When he was first elected president, Obama told an audience composed largely of immigrants, "I marched with you in the streets of Chicago to meet our immigration challenge. I fought with you in the Senate for comprehensive immigration reform. And I will make it a top priority in my first year as President."

Obama has made immigration a priority, but not in the way many people hoped for, and were led to expect by Obama's words and promises. He has presided over more deportations, by far, than any president in U.S. history. He has continued to pour military, police, and legal forces into the border region, an area already saturated with militarization. He has done next to nothing to counter the racist immigrant baiting and demonization coming from his right wing opponents.

Still, when Obama announced that he was giving a major speech on immigration on the night of November 20, people across the country gathered in front of TV screens at community centers, union halls, restaurants, and in their homes waiting to hear what he would say, many wishing that, in the words a woman from Pasadena, Texas posted on Facebook, "Tomorrow's announcement brings hope for my family... I hope that the wait of 14 years ends tomorrow."

Relentless Repression, Honeyed Words

Obama's short speech was a combination of boasts about how tough on immigrants he has been, threats and promises of further repression, sentimental appeals to a mythological American "compassion" for immigrants—lightly sugared with some paltry and temporary concessions. Obama declared that "our immigration system is broken, and everyone knows it” and announced three major changes and developments in U.S. immigration policy. First, he said he is further militarizing the U.S.-Mexico border, and taking measures to speed up deportations. He also said the U.S. will begin expediting the ability of "highly skilled" and entrepreneurial immigrants to enter the U.S.

But the centerpiece of the speech was its third measure—an executive order that will defer potential deportation for about 4 million people, almost all of them from Mexico or Central America. Obama's plan allows millions of undocumented people to apply for a form of temporary legalized status, with NO promise that they won't be deported in the future. "Here's the thing," he said. "If you register, pass a criminal background check, and you're willing to pay your fair share of taxes, you'll be able to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation." He specifically added that his measures do "not grant citizenship or the right to stay here permanently."

Obama also declared an end to the much hated "Secure Communities" program, which allowed ICE (Immigration Enforcement and Control) agents to collect fingerprints of people held in city and county jails, including for the most minor offenses, and tell local police to hold prisoners they thought could be deported beyond their sentences. Obama claimed his new program will put an emphasis on "felons, not families." In fact the end of Secure Communities will have only a small impact on ICE policy. As a reporter for the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Under the new program, federal agents will continue to examine local fingerprint records and, in some cases, continue asking jail officials to hold certain inmates beyond the length of their sentences. Unlike before, Immigration and Customs Enforcement will now have to specify that the inmate has a removal order against them or is likely deportable."

Obama's executive order means that, beginning next spring, millions of undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents who have been in the U.S. for at least five years can apply for relief from deportation—for three years. This measure is being called "Deferred Action for Parents" (DAP), and is similar in most ways to the "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" (DACA) program instituted last year. Estimates are that this measure will apply to roughly one-third of the undocumented in the country now, or about 4 or 5 million people. Parents of the "Dreamers"—undocumented people who came to this country as young children—are not included among those eligible for the deferment of deportation unless they also have one or more children born in this country. Obama and his supporters present this measure as a magnanimous gesture in keeping with what he called the U.S. "tradition of welcoming immigrants from around the world."

The Department of Homeland Security described the conditions of DACA and DAP: "certain people... may request consideration of deferred action for a period of two years, subject to renewal. They are also eligible for work authorization. Deferred action is a use of prosecutorial discretion to defer removal action against an individual for a certain period of time. Deferred action does not provide lawful status". (Deferral under DAP will be for three years.)

Taken together, all this is an apt concentration of the face of American democracy: brutal repression coupled with threats that "it could get worse for you," self-righteously presented as generosity. A hallmark of Obama's administration has been relentless repression aimed at immigrants, slathered with honeyed words. Obama has presided over more deportations than any president in U.S. history. This summer, his administration unleashed vicious repression against impoverished children trying to rejoin their families in the U.S. The extreme, murderous militarization of the U.S./Mexico border has already reached an all time high in the Obama years. The measures announced by Obama this week are in keeping with and an intensified continuation of this history.

Out of the Shadows, into the Government Spotlight

There are millions of people without legal documentation in this country—most estimates indicate at least 12 million people. Continuing and deepening the savage exploitation of these immigrants is essential to the profitable functioning of the capitalist imperialist system.

Yet, in the eyes of the system's rulers, these are people of questionable loyalty, people who must not only be exploited ruthlessly, but monitored and controlled. Obama's executive decision is aimed at getting people “out of the shadows,” as he put it, to a place where they are in the open, and can be registered with and monitored by the government. The remainder of the "illegal" Mexican and Central American immigrants in the U.S. now, and those who manage to get into the U.S. in the months ahead, will be, as Obama said in his speech, regarded and treated as "actual threats to our security" and targeted for arrest or deportation. He identified these people—who number in the millions—as "felons...criminals...and gang members." The day after Obama made his nationally televised speech, he travelled to Las Vegas and Chicago to drum up support for his executive order. Three times during his Chicago speech in front of a selected audience, he was disrupted by hecklers shouting “you have been deporting families.” They are right, and that is exactly what Obama, and the entire ruling class he represents, Democrats and Republicans alike, intend to keep doing.

Obama is moving to break a deadlock within the ruling class over how best to repress, monitor and control the most heavily exploited and among the potentially most politically volatile sections of immigrants. Different sections of the U.S. rulers have been locked in a bitter, protracted conflict over policy towards immigrants and immigration that centers on how to best protect and extend the interests of the capitalist-imperialist system they all represent, while sustaining deep exploitation of immigrant workers.

Sharpening Conflict in the Ruling Class

To many of Obama's Republican opponents, the measures Obama has taken are not enough—they accuse him of being “soft” on immigrants, of not doing enough to “seal the border.” And they say that even opening a pathway to any form of legal recognition for the undocumented is a form of “amnesty” that can never be allowed. They have enacted ugly anti-immigrant laws and measures at state and local levels, and unleashed police and National Guard forces under their command to arrest immigrants and patrol the border. They have created a racist environment in which hateful mobs of racists attack children with impunity.

Republicans in Congress began bitterly denouncing Obama's moves before he even gave his speech. Despite the fact that Obama's administration has, in his words and in fact, deployed "more agents and technology...to secure our southern border than at any time in our history," that in the past six years "illegal border crossings have been cut by more than half," and that deportations have been at an all-time high under Obama, the Republicans argue that Obama has not been aggressive enough in repressing and deporting immigrants.

They demand even more vicious assaults at the border and upon immigrants already within the country, and no shred of encouraging or allowing people to obtain a status in which they aren't threatened with deportation. Along with powerful and influential public-opinion creators, they have worked steadily to foster and inflame a fascist, xenophobic (having hatred of "foreigners") atmosphere in society as a whole, and to pass hateful anti-immigrant laws on the local, state and federal levels.

Even more, they have been using their differences with Obama and the Democrats over approaches to repressing and controlling immigrants to launch an attack on what many of them call Obama's "imperial presidency." By this they mean that Obama is acting not only outside of, but against, the U.S. Constitution. This is an extremely serious accusation, and it indicates the depth of the divisions within the highest circles of the U.S. bourgeoisie.

Congressman Steve King, described by the New York Times as a voice of "rising prominence" among Republicans, blustered that the Republicans are considering a variety of options to undercut Obama, not just on immigration but in his presidency. King said that impeachment of Obama "is still on the table." Several of them have called Obama an "emperor" and a "king" and invoked images of the founding of the United States as a rebellion against a king.

The contention bursting out around immigration now between leading political figures is part of sharpening conflicts between two blocs of the U.S. ruling class, generally represented by Republicans and Democrats. As the important revcom.us article "The Shutdown, the Showdown, and the Urgent Need to Repolarize...for Revolution" put it, "While there is underlying unity between the leaders of the two parties over maintaining empire and the domestic pillars of that empire, the conflicts between them are quite real. These battles are not, in the main, phony pro-wrestling type posturing—and they could easily get out of control of the antagonists. One miscalculation on either side, and an even more open and serious conflict actually could erupt." As part of that, the contradictions that are driving both political parties of the U.S. ruling class in how they are approaching the question of immigration are not going to be lessened or resolved by any law.

These contradictions are thoroughly embedded in the system of capitalism-imperialism. The rulers of this country require a large pool of deeply exploited immigrants for the functioning and profitability of their overall system. But they fear immigrants carry with them the contagion of contributing to potential dissolution of a U.S. social cohesion grounded in white supremacy, male supremacy, repression of immigrants, and "English Only." To put it another way, when it comes to immigrants, the capitalists "can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em."

Further vicious attacks by this system on immigrants are sure to happen, including against those who come forward under Obama's executive order and also those not in this country yet. But the choices provided by this system are not the only options—there is another way, a revolutionary way. What is needed for immigrants is not a path to greater repression and control disguised as "coming out of the shadows" but fierce defiance and resistance to renewed assaults upon immigrants, from all sections of the people who oppose oppression and injustice. What is needed is exposure of and resistance to these attacks—built as part of the entire movement for revolution, with the orientation of "Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution."

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