The immigrant rights movement at an impasse

July 14, 2016

Supporters of immigrant rights will have to assess their strategy for achieving change after the outcome at the Supreme Court, write Lupita Romero and Danny Katch.

THE U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked last month on whether to reverse a lower court decision to block two executive actions by the Obama administration regarding immigration policy.

The justices' non-decision has dashed the hopes of millions of undocumented people desperate for work permits and relief from deportation--and thrown the entire strategy of the mainstream wing of the immigrant rights movement into question.

By tying four-to-four, the Supreme Court, whose ninth seat hasn't been filled since the death of Antonin Scalia in February, let stand a Texas court injunction blocking implementation of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA)--which would have given close to 5 million parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents temporary status and work authorization--and expansion of the age range for those qualifying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

"I qualified for the expansion of DACA, and I was really thinking I was going to...continue my education," said Juan Ramos of United We Dream at a rally outside the Supreme Court. "Now people are reminding me once again that I cannot do that."

Immigrant rights activists gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court
Immigrant rights activists gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court (Susan Melkisethian)

The legal arguments used to block these actions are dubious, starting with the state of Texas' claim that they would force it to bear the "onerous" cost of providing driver's licenses to immigrants.

Neither the Supreme Court nor the Texas court seemed to care that at this time last year, Gov. Greg Abbot brushed off concerns about giving businesses billions of dollars in tax breaks by boasting about how much extra money the state had in its coffers.

The more far-reaching challenge was about whether Obama had overstepped his executive authority and changed immigration law without going through Congress.

But this argument was never raised when Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush used their executive authority to ramp up deportations to levels unheard of in previous generations. Apparently, it's legal for presidents to unilaterally increase immigration enforcement, but illegal for them to decrease it.

In fact, like many court decisions, the underlying reasoning for the reversal of DAPA and expanded DACA are based not in the law but in politics--in this case, the bigoted beliefs of Andrew Hanen, a federal judge for the Southern District of Texas.

Months before hearing Texas' challenge to DAPA, Hanen had called it "an open invitation to the most dangerous criminals in society." During the hearing, he declared that "talking to anyone in Brownsville about immigration is like talking to Noah about the flood."

MANY IMMIGRANT rights advocates are citing this setback as further proof of the importance of getting out the vote this fall for Hillary Clinton, so that she can appoint a ninth justice to the Supreme Court who is sympathetic to immigrant rights.

Actually, the movement should draw a very different lesson from the defeat of DAPA: that the strategy of relying on Democrats like Clinton and Obama has led us into an impasse.

Deferred Action has been one of few victories for the immigrant rights movement in recent years. Obama's orders allowed thousands of undocumented youth to obtain a driver's license, work legally and, because of that, gain access to vital social services such as health care.

According to its most recent data, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved 728,285 applications since the announcement of the executive action, with the highest number of recipients residing in California, Texas and Illinois.

DACA has not only helped these youth step out of the shadows and enter the formal economy, but it's also strengthened their families and communities. According to the Pew Hispanic Research Center, nearly 9 million immigrants live in "mixed-status households" where family members include U.S. citizens, legal residents, DACA beneficiaries and undocumented immigrants.

But this diverse and complicated reality of immigrant life is exactly why the enforcement-first and "merit-based" approach of Obama's immigration policies has fallen short of offering real relief to immigrants. For many, some family members were able to obtain protection under DACA while simultaneously, others were actively targeted for deportation.

Obama's executive actions had a positive impact on many lives, but they are no solution to the ongoing crisis of deportations. They benefit only a small percentage of the undocumented, and they provide only temporary work authorization, with no path to citizenship, which could be ended by the White House at any time.

WHILE APOLOGISTS for the president argue that DAPA and DACA were the best he could do to in the face of hostile Republicans controlling Congress, they forget that Obama himself created the deportation crisis.

"Barack Obama's recent executive order halting deportations for as many as 5 million people is a welcomed reprieve," wrote Justin Akers Chacón in Socialist Worker after the announcement of DAPA and expanded DACA, "much as a cease-fire is naturally welcomed by people subjected to military air strikes.

As is usually the case with divide-and-conquer politics, the results have worked out badly for all immigrants.

While boasting a "felons not families" approach to immigration policy, Obama's administration significantly expanded Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) collaboration with local city agencies and police departments across the country, and permanently increased immigration enforcement at the border. On the other side, there was only temporary and reversible relief, as the overturning of DAPA makes all too clear.

Yet Obama has avoided significant protest from the bulk of immigrant rights advocates and organizations, because of their strategy of tailing the Democratic Party in the hope that it will made good on its leaders' promises to stand by immigrant communities.

For the last 10 years, the mainstream forces dominant within the immigrant rights movement have backed the Democratic Party's efforts to pass so-called Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR), which they hoped would put an end to most deportations by providing people with a "path to citizenship" in some form.

They have mobilized to support Obama and the Democrats during elections, only to get in return increasingly worse immigration bills that prioritize enforcement over relief and citizenship.

Then, after lowering their expectations and resigning themselves to the idea that even weak reforms are "better than nothing," they are further disappointed when even the compromised measures fail to pass the perpetual political gridlock that is the U.S. Congress.

In the process, an immigrant rights movement that 10 years ago produced some of the largest strikes and protests in U.S. history has failed to challenge Obama's enforcement-first approach.

As a result, under a Democratic administration, the U.S. government has greatly expanded its ability to forcibly detain and deport millions through insidious policies that incentivize racist policing and streamlined removal--from the "bed quota" that mandates ICE to fill 34,000 beds in detention at all times to programs like Secure Communities and Priority Enforcement Program that facilitates coordination between ICE and police departments that has enabled the most recent wave of home raids across the country under Operation Cross Check.

Taken together, these initiatives are part of an offensive approach that has increased the reach and interdependence of local and federal agencies in order to remove immigrants in record numbers, detain new incoming immigrants and, as the administration says, "deter" future immigrants from entering the country.

Moreover, many of these enforcement programs have been applied retroactively, effectively punishing people for minor offenses they might have committed and paid the price for over a decade ago.

All told, Obama has gone from being a champion of immigrant rights eight years ago to the "Deporter-In-Chief." He has not only surpassed every president in history in number of deportations, but he is also creating a new repressive state apparatus for President Clinton or Trump to preside over.

As Marissa Franco and Carlos Garcia wrote in the Nation, "When [Obama] leaves office he will leave behind to his successor the most well-funded, human expulsion machine in the history of the country."

AS COMPREHENSIVE immigration reform was going down year after year at the hands of Republicans with no interest in anything except enforcement, activists focused increasingly in on expanding the protections and benefits of DACA to parents and older immigrants who may not be eligible for the current DACA policy. This makes the federal courts' reversal all the more painful.

In the days following the Supreme Court deadlock, many immigrant advocacy organizations blamed the Republican Party for blocking confirmation of Obama's appointee Merrick Garland, who could presumably have broken the tie in favor of the administration's executive actions.

Others are trying to shift the conversation back to the executive powers that Obama still has to halt deportations. In the days after the court decision, organizers with the Not1More Deportation campaign held a Moratorium Now! rallies in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Connecticut, while North Carolina teachers disrupted a joint campaign appearance by Obama and Clinton to protest raids on local high school students.

This focus on protesting Democrats on the presidential campaign trail harkens back to the strategy that made Deferred Action happen to begin with. It was only after immigrant youth occupied his re-election campaign offices around the country in 2012 that Obama, who had long insisted that he didn't have the power to halt deportations, issued the DACA executive order.

So these protests are a good start. But their small size reflects the toll that the Obama years have taken on the movement--in the form, first and foremost, of deportations and repression, but also the failed strategy followed by mainstream organizations of blindly following Democratic politicians who don't have our interests at heart.

It will take time to rebuild a movement that can mobilize large numbers behind an uncompromising demand for full equality for all immigrants. But the defeat of even the most limited temporary relief measures at the hands of racist judges and indifferent politicians shows that those efforts need to begin now.

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