The U.S. Immigration Battle Intensifies
In an escalating dispute with President Barack Obama, Republican members of the United States House of Representatives have passed a bill which will cut any funding to the Department of Homeland Security for suspending the deportation of undocumented people.
In December the President ordered the department, beginning this spring, to defer the deportation of undocumented immigrants with US-born children (who are thus US citizens). A previous Obama order suspended the deportation of young people without documents, brought to the US as children. The Republican bill would rescind both orders.
A new, Republican-dominated Congress took office in January. Congress must fund the department by 27 February or it could shut down. President Obama has threatened to veto this bill, and while there are enough Republican votes in the Senate to pass it, there are not enough to override a veto.
The US trade union movement supports deferral programs, and opposes the mass deportations that now total over two million people during the Obama administration - around 400,000 per year. After the Republican majority was elected, AFL-CIO President Richard L Trumka warned its defunding proposal “would further exploitation and force our community members to continue to live and work in fear.” Joe Hansen, president of United Food and Commercial Workers, agreed. “Executive action is not all we need or deserve,” he said. “But it is a step in the right direction.”
Obama’s latest executive action, however, caused a lot of controversy among unions and immigrant rights activists because of the conditions attached to the deferrals. For instance, tech employers will be allowed to bring increased numbers of workers recruited under contract labour programs to the US, and pay them wages substantially below those of US residents. Over 900,000 workers already arrive in the US in these programs every year, which have been criticised because the recruited workers have few labour rights.
Meanwhile, various organisations also criticised the administration’s order because it increases immigration enforcement. US law currently forbids people to work without legal immigration status, but about 12 million people do so anyway. Under Obama’s order, four to five million people, at most, will get permission to work. But at the same time the Department of Homeland Security will increase enforcement against those millions of others who will not. Over the last decade, tens of thousands of workers in agriculture, meatpacking, construction, building services, manufacturing and other industries have lost their jobs as a result of workplace enforcement. Many, if not most, have been union members, and a groundswell of labour opinion has condemned these terminations. Hundreds of workers, for instance, were fired in the middle of an organising drive at a California supermarket chain. Gerardo Dominguez, organising director of Local 5 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, called the terminations “an economic disaster for the San Francisco Bay Area. These workers pay taxes that support local schools and services. Being terminated because of immigration status is a violation of their human and civil rights. Their families and our entire community will be harmed, and inequality and poverty will increase.”
In addition, the President announced that even greater resources will be spent securing the US/Mexico border, where hundreds of people die each year. “More enforcement here will mean even more people will die trying to cross, and greater violations of civil and human rights in our border communities,” according to the Coalición de Derechos Humanos, a union-aligned immigrant rights organisation based in Tucson, Arizona. “We need to demilitarise the border, not to increase its militarisation. The US already spends more money on immigration enforcement, including the notorious Operation Streamline kangaroo courts, than all other federal law enforcement programs combined. It is inexcusable to spend even more.”
President Obama also announced he will expand the number of privately-run prisons for immigrants, and the number of people held in them. One such centre, the South Texas Family Residential Center, has already been built in Texas to hold over 2400 children and family members from Central America. The detention of Central American children has been strongly criticised by the AFL-CIO. A recent delegation to Honduras led by the federation’s vice-president Tefere Gebre even urged the Honduran government not to accept deportees arriving from the US if they haven’t been allowed their legal right to apply for asylum.
Free trade policies
According to many labor and immigrant rights groups, however, migrants from Central America, Mexico and elsewhere have been driven into migration by free trade agreements and other economic policies pursued by the US government. Yet the Obama administration is currently asking Congress to give it a “fast-track” process for approving the Trans Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement involving 12 countries around the Pacific Rim. The Dignity Campaign, a network of a number of local unions, labour councils and immigrant rights organisations, warned: “Two decades of experience with NAFTA tells us that these deals drive people into poverty, leading to more displacement and global migration, while US jobs are eliminated. We need to end these trade arrangements as part of a sensible immigration policy. We must change US immigration law and trade policy to deal with the basic causes of migration, and to guarantee the human, civil and labor rights of migrants and all working people.”
The Obama executive order will not change US law — only the Congress can pass laws. It can only change the way existing law is enforced. The possibility exists, therefore, that an incoming administration elected in 2016 could reverse it, deporting those who have come forward to claim a deferred status. That prospect has already frightened some potential applicants.
Guillermo Perez, President of the Pittsburgh Labor Council on Latin American Advancement, said the job of the trade union movement is to ensure the implementation of President Obama’s deferral order in order to “help us in organising workplaces where there are substantial numbers of undocumented people.” “The challenge is getting those folks to apply, get them legal status, and make sure that they never lose it,” Perez says. “If we don’t get enough people into the program, it’s more likely that it could be taken away. I’d love to see union halls all over the country opening up and serving as places where people can come to get good information to apply. That would be beautiful.”
THE REALITY CHECK - David Bacon blog