Will Obama deliver on immigration?

May 8, 2009

Ty Coronado and Norma Villegas say that despite some welcome minor changes, the rhetoric of the Obama administration has failed to live up to the expectations it created.

LAST YEAR, in his attempt to win the Latino vote during his bid for the White House, Barack Obama declared to the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) that

the system just isn't working...When communities are terrorized by [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel, when all that is happening, the system just isn't working, and we need to change it.

Thirty-six days into the Obama presidency, on February 24, an ICE raid was carried out at Yamato Engine Specialists in Bellingham, Wash. According to CNN, "the Bellingham raid was the first of its kind to take place during the Obama administration."

Ironically, Obama had been interviewed via telephone by Chicago Spanish radio personality El Pistolero on February 12, not long before the Bellingham raid. As immigrant rights activist, Justin Akers Chacón argued, "Obama...seemed to be shying away from his condemnation of ICE raids. When asked whether a moratorium on raids was possible, he dodged the question" ("Will Obama curb the crackdown by ICE?").

Obama's reply to El Pistolero was: "Let's evaluate the [enforcement] laws that are working, [and] the laws that are not working." Didn't Obama tell the NCLR that enforcement in the form of raids was not working? This reversal shows that the rhetoric about family separation and terror was exactly that--rhetoric. Rhetoric used to garner votes during the election cycle, not a concrete plan of action that many Latino immigrants were, and are still, expecting.

May 1, 2009, marked Obama's 101st day in office. Presidential administrations (since FDR) have been judged by their actions in their first 100 days in office. If immigrant rights groups were to judge the Obama administration in its first 100 days, they would do so not by its actions, but by its inactions.

Obama's Mexican hat dance approach to immigration has been tepid and indecisive at best. It is clear from the lack of concrete action that Obama does not want to step on any one group's toes (conservative or liberal). Obama knows that he can't deviate too far from the promises he made to his Latino base at the NCLR (Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008), but at the same time, he has not taken any clear steps toward immigration reform.

Instead, the Obama administration has focused on correcting a few minor but striking blemishes that taint the immigration landscape.

For example, sensing the anger over the Bellingham raid, newly appointed Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano decided to release the workers arrested. As reported by CNN, the workers who were detained during the Bellingham raid were subsequently released and many were given temporary work permits.

In a similar, immigrant-friendly move, Napolitano stated that she plans to shift the focus of enforcement away from workers to employers. To top it off, the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into the barbaric and embarrassing tactics of Arizona's anti-immigrant sheriff Joe Arpaio--an entertainer of sorts who, at one time, had close ties to Janet Napolitano.

ALL IN all, these actions do little to counteract the violence of the past few years. In fact, the lack of a formal moratorium on raids keeps the specter of terrorism alive and well in many communities across the country. There is no clear indication of a moratorium on raids. As CNN noted, "Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, said there was no policy shift and that other worksite immigration inspections had taken place since the Bellingham raid."

Immigrant communities across the country are still reeling from the terror of raids and deportations of the past two years.

Last year was a record year for arrests and deportations. In a February 24 press release, ICE reported 5,173 administrative immigration arrests for the fiscal year of 2008. According to Akers Chacón, "workplace raids reached an all-time high of 6,287 arrests." This is a paltry in comparison to the "349,000 people [who] were deported through various DHS [Department of Homeland Security] efforts in 2008 alone."

Let's not overlook the fact that these raids and deportations occurred under the auspices of a Democrat-controlled Congress. The lack of legislation that guarantees people protection from raids and deportation is simply unacceptable.

Besides the raids, thousands of undocumented workers are still living in crowded, squalid and inhumane detention centers.

According a report published in February by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), in 2007, there were "over 311,000 detainees [held] in more than 500 detention facilities." The GAO also reported that "69 detainees died while in ICE custody" during the 2004-2007 fiscal year. More deaths were reported during the 2008 fiscal year, but the details were not available in the report. This means that detainees can be subjected to violence while they await deportation to their home countries.

On the whole, the rhetoric of the Obama administration has failed to live up to the expectations it created. The inaction of the administration during its first 100 days reinforces the need for political action both outside and inside of the political arena. If history is any indication of change, we've learned that sustained mobilization, independent of the political action, is an effective way to gain civil rights. In the past few years, May 1 has become synonymous with both political action and civil rights.

We cannot afford to wait for Obama and the Democrats to sit there and "evaluate" enforcement laws that don't work, while families continue to be torn apart. We cannot allow this gross mistreatment, humiliation and racial profiling of immigrants (legal and illegal) to continue.

We call on Obama and the Democrats to put a stop to enforcement of unjust laws against migrant workers and their families: to stop the raids, close down detention centers, halt deportations, and reunite nursing mothers with their babies and schoolchildren with their parents.

We call on Obama and the Democrats to do these things until all workers can finally come out of the shadows and live and work with dignity, to their full potential, free from oppression and repression!

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