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.