The Year in Review: After Lofty Campaign Promises, More Enforcement From President Obama

This is the first installment in a two-part year-end analysis of the immigration policy scenario in 2009 and 2010. Read the second part here.

Despite his promises as a candidate, President Obama’s record on immigration starts and largely ends with more enforcement - Photo: The White House.

Despite his promises as a candidate, President Obama’s record on immigration starts and largely ends with more enforcement. (Photo: The White House)

Nearly a year after the nation inaugurated its first president who is the child of a foreigner, immigration reform may finally be on the horizon. With the Senate passing its version of health care reform in the wee hours of Christmas Eve, many immigrant advocates are waiting with bated breath for the White House to turn its attention to immigration in 2010.

As a candidate, Barack Obama made a point of stressing his commitment to reforming the nation’s immigration laws in a just manner that “unites families and encourages people to play by the rules”. In response, immigrants –particularly Latino voters– propelled him to victories in several states, including former Republican strongholds like Virginia.

Yet despite his broad and lofty promises as a candidate, President Obama’s record on immigration so far is notable in that it starts –and largely ends– with enforcement.

The government’s approach, however, has shifted from targeting immigrants themselves –as during the Bush Administration, which made high-profile, large-scale immigration raids the norm– to focusing on the employers who hire undocumented immigrants.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D.-Il.) introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill earlier this month, hoping to jumpstart the conversation and spur the White House and Congress into action. Gutierrez, a longtime champion of immigrant rights, represents a Chicago district with large numbers of immigrant voters and residents. His proposal, developed in close partnership with immigrant advocacy groups, is notable for its broad legalization provision, its expansion of family-based immigration, and the absence of a temporary- or guest-worker program. National Latino and immigrant rights organizations such as the National Council of La Raza and the National Immigration Forum lauded Gutierrez for launching his legislative effort after months of delays caused by the fierce debate over health care reform.

The initiative, however, is widely seen by Washington advocates as a placeholder bill due to its lack of bipartisan support. House Republicans pronounced it “dead on arrival” due to its notable omission of a temporary labor provision which many business leaders see as critical. In turn, labor unions such as the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win labor coalition, which includes the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU), are steadfast in their opposition to a program that ties immigrant workers to their employers once they are in the U.S. and does not offer them the option to stay in the country once their one- or two-year labor contract has expired.

So far, Gutierrez’s bill also lacks a counterpart in the Senate. The White House has declined to comment on it.

The Department of Homeland Security put a moratorium on high-profile –and politically unpopular– workplace raids after immigration agents descended upon an electronics factory near Seattle.

In fact, the Obama Administration announced plans mid-year to enforce immigration laws by targeting employers that hire undocumented immigrants and enlisting local police departments to seek out and deport undocumented violent criminals through the “Secure Communities” program.

The White House has followed through on its promise: a Dec. 22 study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found federal prosecutions spiked sharply in 2009. Immigration-related prosecutions –largely stemming from investigations into firms for potentially employing undocumented workers– accounted for nearly half of all federal cases, an unprecedented share.

As for the specifics of its proposed reform bill, the Obama Administration pushed back deadlines to make them public twice. Finally, nearly ten months after Obama came into office, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano outlined the Administration’s priorities for an immigration reform proposal.

Napolitano likened the White House’s approach to immigration reform to a “three-legged stool” that includes a greater focus on immigration enforcement among the undocumented and employers that hire them, a “tough and fair” pathway to legal status for the nation’s 11 to 12 million undocumented, and a streamlined system for legal immigration. Though a comprehensive reform bill would ultimately be drafted by Congress, any signals from the Obama Administration on what it would ultimately support are critical from a political standpoint – especially as Congressional races heat up for midterm elections in 2010.

To date, and aside from high-profile public statements and interviews by Obama and Napolitano, much of the administration’s support has gone to immigration enforcement.

Virginia Kice, a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson, summed up the current approach. “The focus is on the employer … on ensuring that businesses employ a legal workforce,” she said.

Many immigrant advocates and political analysts believe the White House felt it was crucial to demonstrate its commitment to enforcing immigration laws before turning to the more politically divisive question of whether and how to overhaul them.

The White House and the Department of Homeland Security continue to doggedly pursue investigations into firms to verify their employees’ legal status. Over 650 firms were warned of ongoing reviews this year. Firms are generally warned they must either fire workers with questionable immigration status or risk fines of over $100,000. If firms don’t terminate workers who may not be authorized to work in the U.S., they also risk a federal criminal investigation.

American Apparel, the hip Los Angeles-based clothing manufacturer, was one of the highest-profile companies to become a target of this new push. In July 2009, federal agents reported discrepancies in the records of roughly 1,600 employees, and alleged another 200 employees’ work eligibility was suspect. The downtown Los Angeles-based company as a result was forced to fire about 1,600 workers — more than 10% of its workforce of 10,000.

The investigation was decried by immigrant advocates, who contend the company treats its employees well: it even organized a sale in December 2009 to benefit its former workers. American Apparel pays its workers fair wages (roughly $11 an hour, generally unheard of in the garment industry), and provides employees with health care coverage in addition to free English classes. The company also has been a vocal supporter of immigration reform: since 2007, it has run the “Legalize LA” campaign to help make the case for a large-scale legalization program.

Advocates contend targeting employers for supposed immigration violations does little to improve the working conditions and wage levels of workers across the board. Employers often simply continue to pay employees off the books, even at reduced wage levels and with less oversight over wage and hour laws.

The verdict on Secure Communities is even more mixed. To allegedly “root out” undocumented violent criminals from local communities, federal immigration officials broker agreements with state and municipal police departments to run every individual booked at local jails through a federal immigration database. Those who have committed violent crimes and are found to be undocumented are then transferred to immigration officials for deportation.

Immigration raids also continue through the program, in an effort to target undocumented residents who are violent offenders. Advocates counter many undocumented immigrants swept up by this program do not have criminal records and are deported anyway. Nevertheless, administration officials report they hope to have the program up and running throughout the nation’s jails by 2012.

Yet according to Homeland Security data released this fall, the program cast a much wider net into immigrant communities: only 11% of the 110,000 undocumented immigrants put into deportation proceedings were violent criminals.

Among the rest, some were simply undocumented immigrants flagged by local police at traffic stops, for visa violations, or under suspicion of being day laborers.

Second installment: What’s in Store for Immigration Reform Under Obama in 2010?

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