Obama and Immigration Reform: A Lack of Leadership

Aly Wane

From the February 2012 PNL #811

Image: Favianna Rodriguez

On March 21st, 2010, I joined over 200,000 others and marched on Washington to pressure President Obama to make good on his promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would create an earned path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. I could detect a change in the air. The immigration reform movement had, up until then, been very hopeful of the new President and trusted that the machinery of democracy would lead to a positive outcome. But I could tell that there was more anger, militancy and disillusionment with Obama. For good reason.

The Deporter-in-Chief

It’s early 2012, and not only has the administration failed to live up to its promise, but it has deported over one million people in its first three years. In comparison, the Bush administration deported 1.57 million people in its two full terms. There is no denying it: Barack Obama has been an utter disappointment on immigration reform. On this, as well as many other issues, he has used the same playbook: kowtowing to right wing pressure in the hopes that his political opponents would eventually concede to modest legislative change. As a result, he has alienated both his base and a Republican Party that stonewalls at every turn.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the immigration reform struggle. The right wing has done a masterful job of stirring up racial and class anxiety, and linking immigration to the already toxic debate of “The War on Terror.” Thus, in the mainstream media, the term “illegal alien” has morphed into “potential terrorist.” Additionally, conservatives have drummed up false fears about “lack of security at the border” despite the fact that, according to the nonpartisan Bureau of Justice Statistics, crime rates in the Mexican border states are actually lower than in the inland states. Finally, “illegal aliens” have become the perfect scapegoats for an economy that has been rigged for the 1 percent for at least 30 years of voodoo, “trickle down” economics.

The results on the ground have been devastating. Immigration raids have continued in workplaces and homes, expanding the war on civil liberties. We’ve seen an exponential increase in deportations, separating families without due process or judicial review. Increased militarization of the border has included the hiring of private military contractors and the use of unmanned drones. Meanwhile, Republicans have pushed for more stringent laws, such as Arizona’s SB1070, which urges law enforcement to apprehend anyone who “looks like an illegal alien,” Alabama’s HB 56, which would deny public utility access to undocumented people, and Georgia’s HB 87, which would make it illegal for citizens to give undocumented people rides.

Immigrants for Sale

The immigration detention network is essentially the newest face of the prison industrial complex. In the wake of Arizona’s SB1070, NPR reported on the collusion between legislators and corporate interests to write the law. The story detailed meetings between Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce (among others), the prime sponsor of SB1070, and a secretive industry group called ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) which includes the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, both large private corrections industry players. The bill provides a steady flow of undocumented immigrants to CCA and other detention corporations, leading to high profits. This law and similar state laws are broadening the definition of “criminal immigrant,” leading to record numbers of detentions, to the corporate glee of the corrections industry.

Glimmers of Hope

The administration’s current failure on immigration is due to its unwillingness to separate the immigration issue from the national security issue and its inability to re-frame immigration in terms of the humanitarian crisis created by repeatedly breaking up families and wasting the energy and potential of undocumented youth who want nothing more than to contribute to this country. However, immigration proposals being pushed by the Democrats (like the DREAM Act and an earned, arduous path to citizenship for the undocumented) are actually supported by the majority of US citizens. Thus, the legislative impasse is mostly due to political timidity, a lack of vision from the Democratic Party and the recalcitrance of the Republican Party.

Thankfully, unrelenting pressure from grassroots activists like the young DREAMers and the reality of growing Latino voting power has pushed the administration to move in the right direction. Recently, the Department of Homeland Security declared that it would engage in deportation case reviews with the goal of nullifying deportation orders of undocumented immigrants with family ties and no criminal records. Young people who would be eligible for the DREAM Act would also qualify for cancellation of removal. These moves give slight hope to the immigration reform movement that bolder steps might be forthcoming.


Aly is a Senegalese immigrant activist and member of the Peace Newsletter editorial committee.