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We Don't Want Just Any Immigration Reform

New America Media, Commentary, Renee Saucedo Posted: Apr 04, 2010

Last week, we witnessed the powerful marches of immigrant communities in Washington, D.C., and in other cities, in support of "immigration reform." These protests allowed those impacted by unfair immigration laws to remind lawmakers of their demands: 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, the coalition spearheading a national immigration reform campaign, recently came out in support of the conservative Senate proposal authored by Senators Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.). In a recent email, Reform Immigration FOR America 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. More than 350,000 undocumented migrants were incarcerated last year in private detention centers. This number will rise under the bipartisan plan.

Graham-Schumer also proposes creating a biometric national identity card that everyone, including U.S. citizens, would have to carry to prove that they are authorized to work. People working without papers will be fired and even imprisoned. And they propose expanding 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 states, "(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 Luis Gutierrez bill, introduced by 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 are making a strategic argument rather than a political or ideological one.

Luis 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. It eliminates the program encouraging collaboration between local law enforcement and immigration authorities, provides an avenue for undocumented youth to apply for residency, and improves the oversight in the current detention system. But it does little in the area of legalization. The Gutierrez bill creates a new "conditional non-immigrant visa status," and those who qualify could apply for residency, with no guarantee. 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 were favorable in the area of legalization, it still would do more damage than good. Among other things, it increases border militarization, 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 workers whose names do not match their Social Security numbers. Finally, the bill creates a commission with an anti-worker character, which seeks 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 toward setting up an expanded guest worker program.

The human rights implications of both the Graham-Schumer and Gutierrez proposals are deadly and catastrophic. Under both, more families will be separated; 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 will 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. law. And undocumented immigration to the United States will continue to be conveniently mischaracterized as "criminal," or "illegal," issue, rather than as a consequence of economic trade agreements and political repression which 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 the protection of the 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, the law of employer sanctions was 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 are discriminated against by employers.

Why are we chopping off our bargaining power 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, and marching, we must continue to demand just immigration laws and to work toward ending policies that criminalize and exploit members of our community. In the long run, the immigrant rights movement will be stronger for it.

Renee Saucedo is the Community Empowerment Coordinator at La Raza Centro Legal, in San Francisco.

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