News Analysis: Immigration Policy in 2009

By Suman Raghunathan, FI2W columnist

As the dust begins to settle after the historic November elections, the incoming Obama administration has lost no time in assembling transition teams on a host of pressing issues, including immigration.

The new administration faces difficult questions about the recent focus on immigration enforcement, particularly after the Obama campaign’s promises to reform the nation’s immigration laws in a fair and humane fashion. In fact, one of President-elect Obama’s only explicit references to immigration policy during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention was about the harsh effects of immigration raids on immigrant families – particularly on the over 5 million U.S.-citizen children nationwide with parents who are non-citizens.

What’s more, there’s a sense among many immigrant communities and civil rights groups that Obama is indebted to them after a landslide victory among immigrant voters. Strong Latino voter support for Obama tipped the balance against Sen. McCain in several key battleground states, including Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, and Florida.

During the campaign, President-elect Obama occasionally spoke about the need to crack down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants. To date, the federal enforcement-only approach to immigration in the workplace has focused mainly on immigrants themselves – not on the employers who provide undocumented immigrants with jobs, often at lower wages than their colleagues with legal status. It took months to charge Sholom Rubashkin, the former CEO of the Agriprocessors plant in Iowa on federal charges of hiring undocumented immigrants. Rubashkin is the highest-ranking executive ever arrested on such charges.

In the past two years federal policy on immigration has overwhelmingly focused on enforcing immigration laws – particularly in the wake of failed attempts at large-scale immigration reform in 2006 and 2007.

In a testament to Washington’s laser-like focus on enforcement rather than overhauling current and unrealistic immigration laws, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE, the enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security) announced with much fanfare this fall that the agency had deported a record number of immigrants over the past year –more than 274,000 individuals.

2008 saw the nation’s largest immigration enforcement raids in history, with nearly 400 meatpacking workers swept up at the now-infamous Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa. The Postville raids – which raised serious due process concerns after most of the undocumented workers apprehended were rushed through large-scale and often incomprehensible immigration proceedings, then deported within days – were followed by an even larger-scale raid on a poultry processing plant in Laurel, Mississippi. The Laurel raid rounded up about 600 undocumented workers and raised questions about the federal government’s focus on apprehending, detaining, and rapidly deporting as many undocumented immigrants as possible.

After the public firestorm in response to the Postville and Laurel raids, ICE attempted yet another disastrous program to follow through on its enforcement-only focus: the short-lived and shortsighted “Operation Voluntary Departure”. The effort, initially a pilot program in five major metropolitan areas, was an effort to entice undocumented immigrants to turn themselves in to federal immigration authorities in exchange for not putting undocumented immigrants into detention facilities – a sort of immigration jail, vividly chronicled in the independent film “The Visitor” – while granting them a 90-day grace period to get their affairs in order before leaving the US. The Department of Homeland Security tried to make the program even more appealing by offering to pay immigrant families’ travel expenses back home. A total of eight undocumented immigrants surrendered to federal immigration authorities through Operation Voluntary Departure, which was quietly withdrawn not long after it was first introduced.

Meanwhile, large-scale immigration raids have continued nationwide, notably in Southern California and many other states. Those swept up in raids included a group of Indian guest workers who are currently on their second hunger strike in Minneapolis and are being joined by Rep. Keith Ellison and other faith leaders who support their cause. The guest workers, hired by Signal Corporation, were initially contracted to work on rebuilding sections of industrial New Orleans. After being confined to the company compound for months without pay, the workers escaped and fled to Fargo, ND – where they were again apprehended by ICE agents for their lack of immigration status.

In addition to immigration raids, the Bush administration and several states have also been pushing a complex system called E-Verify, which aims to double-check the legal and work status of new workers hired by businesses. Immigrant rights advocates believe the poorly-funded program, which is currently voluntary for most businesses, will not do much to enforce labor rights laws, which generally apply to all workers regardless of their immigration status.

Immigrant and labor rights advocates point to studies that evaluated pilot versions of programs like E-Verify, and found that the enforcement tool was used selectively by employers against workers who were seeking fair wages or to unionize. Advocates also point out that employers often fire undocumented workers, but continue to employ them off the books and generally at lower wages.

The recent announcement of Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA) as the next secretary of labor provides an interesting coda to the discussion of how the Obama administration will approach enforcing immigration laws, particularly in the workplace. Solis is a popular and vociferous champion of pro-worker and pro-immigration legislation – including the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to unionize.

Finally, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is the Obama administration’s approach to large-scale immigration reform – namely, a legalization program that would provide the 11-12 million undocumented people in the country a way to apply for, and ultimately gain, legal status. Rather than deciding between cracking down on workers or their employers, a legalization program would allow the government to address the needs and concerns of employers, workers, and their families. Speculation is rife about whether and how the Obama administration will broach the controversial subject in his first term, especially given the current ongoing economic crisis facing the nation.

19 comments

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  2. Buzzm1

    Comment deleted for not contributing to a mature debate of issues related to this post. Please refrain from using all caps and try to maintain a civil tone.

    Diego Graglia, Feet in 2 Worlds web editor

  3. Buzzm1

    Comment deleted for not contributing to a mature debate of issues related to this post. Please refrain from using all caps and try to maintain a civil tone.

    Diego Graglia, Feet in 2 Worlds web editor

  4. Buzzm1

    Comment deleted for not contributing to a mature debate of issues related to this post. Please refrain from using all caps and try to maintain a civil tone.

    Diego Graglia, Feet in 2 Worlds web editor

  5. The “needs” of employers? Are you aware of how many American jobs were lost in 2008? This is about cheap labor, cheap votes and a borderless North American Union. These politicians could care less about the “poor immigrant worker”, MS13, Al Qaeda, or anybody else that strolls into this country.

  6. If you think that is bad think about the amount of health care dollars being used by illegals, that US citizens are covering. In the NICU that I work in 50-65% of the babies are illegals!

  7. Rex123

    “In a testament to Washington’s laser-like focus on enforcement rather than overhauling current and unrealistic immigration laws…” What??? Since enforcing immigration laws is hard, we should just scrap them and let in anyone who wants in??? That’s pretty much the exact same sentiment of a recent New York Times editorial by a former Mexican foreign minister, who said that once illegal immigrants slip past the Border Patrol, they should be allowed to stay and eventually become a citizen.

    You know, it’s often very difficult to catch murderers and bank robbers, too, so maybe we should just let them get away with their crimes. It’s even harder to get law enforcement to give tickets for moving violations and misdemeanors like littering, so perhaps we should just scrap those laws, too. Where does it end???

    Appeasement of illegal immigrants and their supports, who think illegals should be given amnesty and not made to assimilate (yes, that means learning English), is going to tear the US apart. It is already starting, and is only going to get worse.

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  9. E-Verify Program for employment is threatened

    The department of Homeland Security has a great new program that allows employers to almost instantly determine employment eligibility. About 99.6 percent of all work-authorized employees verified through E-Verify are verified without having to take any type of corrective action. This is a program that works well. If every business in America used this system, all illegal immigrants would become unemployable and have to return to their homelands.

  10. Dawn

    All those whom only assume the worst of illegal immigrants I just want to say that it’s not your fault that you are sooooooo ignorant. No one can say that it’s not about racism because unless you have actually walked in to their lives and seen what they go through just to be here then you’re just plain ignorant about the WHOLE topic and it is just a fact of you’re racism. Lies about how they don’t pay taxes and free hospital care. Selfish you are just to think that way. I know plenty of illegal people who pay taxes with a form called ITIN. The facts are they want to do things the right way the need the opportunity that or immigrant family from way way back had. (If you call a Mexican a wet back for crossing the rio grande what to we call our ancestors who crossed the ocean to come all this way to claim land that never even belonged to them). And the whole thing about free hospital care that’s just a question of a Quality of life issue you think your unpaid medical bills or billions of Americans who do the same thing because they won’t get a job wont do what it takes to get one, sorry excuses for why they cant find a job. I should know! There are only a big number of people in my family that are exactly that way. And the company they keep do the same. Having all the opportunity in the U.S. to do what they want and don’t take it. And I KNOW the people I speak of are not the only people like that in the U.S. So what makes they’re lives and others whom are legal or U.S. born people who don’t pay a nickel for they’re hospital bills, what makes there live any more valuable. The illegal family’s I know make payment arrangements with my help with the hospitals.
    There are a big number of illegal immigrants that when to the war in Iraq because they believed in the American dreams that much. Even though they were not in legal standing. And you could say that “yeah but no one told them to or they shouldn’t have” just cause you don’t believe in illegal immigrants or choose to stand outside your racist box for a moment to see that some of those illegal people died protecting you and possibly a u.s. citizen solder even though it wasn’t for them selves but believing in the same thing we do. “Freedom”. I can not put you in the position of seeing what’s real with illegal people. I do not believe that drug traffickers should get a way with it or murders or rapist est… But there are millions of good illegal immigrants who want to do the right thing. Who are more then willing to do what it takes to be here legally. But not at the expense of letting their families go hungry or naked. I can’t say I don’t blame them I to Will do what it takes to protect my children and family from those things. And I call B***S*** on people claiming that illegal people are stealing their jobs. Okay so right know the economy is not so great right now but if you want it take it, they have the jobs Americans think they are too good for. Truth is you don’t want them to become legal here in the U.S. Not because of all those things but because they will haul a** to get educated and rise up. Scary huh to think with all the high school drop outs and really young parents whom dropped out will be replaced with people who really want that education that are now being taken for granted by U.S. Citizens. Pissed off cause the want it more then them. Its Illegal America that are watching what’s being taken for granted and then wanting then striving for it then getting it and then being told they stole it how dare they. That’s Right I Call B***S*** on all of you. Ignorant folk of America They won’t stop Striving Running and doing what it takes to get her or be here. NOT ALL of you can say you are doing the same.
    Just incase you are wondering I am an American born citizen. And I know by experience and not what I read or think but by being there and actually knowing it.

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  12. ilfarm

    My Dad & Brother own a Farm in Illinois, to hire immagrant legally, they have to pay them a hourly wage which is more than min. wage. Pay their houseing & electric, They just recieved a letter tht their hourly wage is being increased to 15.50 per hour plus the housing & electric. They only reason they were hired is because he can’t get american kids to work on a farm, they are to spoiled to work hard.

  13. FOR IMMIGRANT

    In a climate where the Ku Klux Klan uses the immigration “threat” to recruit members and neo-Nazis continue to market a computer game where the goal is to shoot Mexicans crossing the border, there is little doubt that these are hard times for immigrants and their allies.
    .
    As the xenophobes of primetime (Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, etc.) continue to preach their endless streams of lies and self-perpetuating panic, the situation is becoming worse for perceived foreigners. The ILLEGAL LATINO AND CARIBBEAN REALLY HAITIAN community in particular, has become a target for anti-immigrant hate. In fact, FBI data continues to list Latinos AND haitians as fastest growing target for hate crimes; and the number of incidents continues to rise.
    .
    Clearly, the anti-immigrant climate is leading to further divisions between communities and it is not unreasonable to think that it’s leading to violence. The majority of Americans see immigration as a positive thing, but the small minority who follow Lou Dobbs and company are dangerous and merciless.
    .
    I was happy to hear that at least one candidate running for President publicly pointed out the dangerous effects of anti-immigrant rhetoric. Speaking at a rally in Florida last weekend, Barack Obama even called out some of the hate mongers by name.
    .
    “A certain segment has basically been feeding a kind of xenophobia. There’s a reason why hate crimes against Hispanic and haitian people doubled last year,” Obama said. “If you have people like Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh ginning things up, it’s not surprising that would happen.”

  14. perla

    i thought that the usa cared about the american kids and what if the parents of the child are immagrents how will they survive without there mom or dad i am startiing to hate the usa becouse they do not care about the children(s)

  15. jvilla

    my question is if the 12 million are legalized what are you going to do with the other millions of illegal aliens that keep on coming in.and are they going to legalize the ones that come to have 4 to5 kids to anchor. this is an ever ending situation! you needto stop automatic citizenship!and build the wall. use e verify

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