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The Great Deporter by Hector Luis Alamo,Jr.
Photo: Obama Deportations
As a young progressive Latino studying ethnic relations at the University of Illinois-Chicago, no one was more ecstatic than I when in 2008, Barack Obama – Chicago’s hometown hero touted as Lincoln incarnate – became the first Black president of the United States. It seemed like the idyllic end to eight years of what many were criticizing as the most conservative period in American politics in decades. For an overwhelming majority of Latinos, who voted for the young Illinois politician by a margin of two-to-one, his promise to push for immigration reform legislation during his first year in office was the object of immense jubilation within the community.
Then the deepest recession since the 1930s hit the nation in 2008. By the time the newly-elected president took office in January 2009, the country had lost 2.6 million jobs and unemployment had climbed to 7.6 percent, up 2.7 points since the previous January. The financial crisis passed on by his predecessor forced the untested leader to dedicate much of his first year in office to steering the nation away from the precipice of a depression, and so the plans for immigration reform were shelved.
Due to figures showing that the economy has stabilized somewhat and even begun to expand since 2009, many economists and officials have declared the Great Recession officially over. It’s a commonly held belief among many Americans, however, that the recession is not yet over, and some are even alarmed by the threat of a double-dip recession in the coming months. And while the president has been able to accomplish some of his campaign goals during such tough economic times – health care reform, Wall Street reform, credit card reform, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the appointment of two women (one a Latina) to the Supreme Court – immigration reform still remains an elusive target for Obama and progressives.
Part of this is due to the ongoing recession – or whatever it is the country is experiencing now. The nation’s immigration policy has always been greatly influenced by its economic stability going as far back as at least the 1870s. At the time, Americans were in the grips of a 65-month recession that began in 1873. In 1878, just a year before the recession ended, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, intended to suspend all Chinese immigration to the United States. (The Chinese were a significant part of the labor force in many of the Western states.) The bill was first vetoed by President Rutherford Hayes. When the nation was hit by another recession in 1882, this time President Chester A. Arthur signed the bill into law.
This pattern of targeting immigrants during economic hard times continued into the twentieth century, when Southern and Eastern Europeans, and then Mexicans, were targeted for exclusion or deportation. When an 18-month deflationary recession struck the post-war economy beginning in 1920, Congress passed the Immigration Restriction Act. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, nearly half a million individuals of Mexican descent – citizens and immigrants alike – were removed from the country through an immigration policy known today euphemistically as “the Mexican Repatriation.”
The flip side to this pattern is the periods of economic expansion wherein immigration policy has loosened in an attempt to further fuel growth. Three periods just within the last century come to mind. The first was the booming economic growth of the Roaring Twenties. Although Congress did pass the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, the law placed no restrictions on immigration from Latin America – something that is virtually unthinkable less than a century later. (At that time, the undesirable immigrant came, not from south of the border, but from across the pond.)
Beginning in World War II, the United States experienced a period of rapid economic expansion that lasted until the 1960s and was fueled by the arrival of what President Dwight Eisenhower termed the “military-industrial complex.” During this time, immigrants from Mexico and Puerto Rico, and refugees around the world fleeing post-war upheavals, flooded into America. It began with the Bracero Program, instituted during the U.S.’ first year in the Second World War, which allowed Mexican workers to enter the country and work on a temporary basis. Then Congress passed the Refugee Relief Act in 1953, including non-Europeans under refugee status. A mass migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland defined much of the country’s immigration trends in the 15 years following World War II, and today there are more Puerto Ricans living on the mainland than do on the island.
The most progressive immigration reform undertaken by an administration in recent decades was actually spearheaded by a Republican president: Ronald Reagan. Once he resurrected the economy after nearly a decade and a half of crisis and placed it back on the path to expansion, Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which, most notably, granted full amnesty to any undocumented resident of the United States who had entered before 1982. With one fell swoop of his pen, Reagan – the godfather of Christian conservatism – legalized nearly three million illegal immigrants living in the country.
The first decade of the new millennium experienced modest economic growth, and so the nation witnessed some bipartisan efforts undertaken by Congress and President George W. Bush to reform immigration law. But since the recession, plans for any reform are off the table. Nevertheless, today’s anti-immigrant sentiment is not entirely new; it’s simply history repeating itself.
Besides the recession and America’s tendency to villainize immigrants when jobs are scarce, there is something relatively new that is also keeping Obama from passing immigration reform: an unprecedented level of Republican obstructionism. While Republicans control the House of Representatives and therefore are able to, by their sheer numbers, block any Democratic legislation, the main tool of Senate Republicans – who currently have a 47-member minority – is the filibuster.
Traditionally, members are allowed to address the floor of the Senate on any topic of their choosing and for any amount of time. Until recently, this tactic was used from time to time as a way to delay or prevent voting on a given piece of legislation. Rules state that a filibuster can be ended with a three-fifths vote by members. The rules regarding Senate procedure – like those concerning the filibuster – require only a simple majority vote to be changed. Current Senate rules, however, allow even potential changes to the Senate rules to be filibustered. This means that, in order to change or eliminate the filibuster, 60 senators would need to vote for it. As I pointed out above, there are only 53 senators in the Democratic caucus, so the filibuster is not likely to change any time soon.
Since 2006, Senate Republicans have used the filibuster – or, more commonly, the threat of a filibuster – to block many Democratic initiatives from even reaching the floor for a vote.
As Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) wrote for U.S. News & World Report back in March 2010:
“[If] 41 senators [do] not like a bill, no matter how simple or noncontroversial, no matter that it may have been supported by a majority of the House, a majority of the Senate, a majority of the American people, and the president, that bill [is] blocked from even coming before the Senate for a final vote.
In other words, thanks to the filibuster, even when a party has been resoundingly repudiated at the polls, that party retains the power to prevent the majority from legislating and effectively governing.”
Republican intransigence and its obstructive use of the filibuster are the main obstacles facing progressive immigration reform today. Returning the House of Representatives to Democratic control and giving the Democrats at least a 60-member majority in the Senate could theoretically ensure the passage of fairer immigration laws, but the chances of any progressive wave sweeping the nation in the fall of 2012 seem near nil at the moment.
Still, nothing can account for the Obama administration’s record-breaking deportations during the past two and a half years. FRONTLINE recently-aired the first part of its new film Lost in Detention, in which Celia Muñoz, top adviser on immigration in the Obama White House, defends the administration’s 400,000 deportations in 2011 – a single-year record – by stating:
“As long as Congress gives us the money to deport 400,000 people a year, that’s what the administration’s going to do. That’s our obligation under the law. … Congress passed a law, and Congress appropriates funds to implement that law, and the executive branch’s job is to enforce it. How we do it matters a lot, but the president can’t say to the Congress, ‘I’m not going to bother to enforce this particular law, because these are really compelling people.’ That’s not how democracy works.”
At first glance, this seems like a strong defense of the mass deportation agenda Obama has strangely adopted over the last couple years. The president – as the Constitution outlines – as the head of the executive branch, cannot make laws, only enforce them. And it’s true: For a president to refuse to comply with the laws of Congress would normally seem like corruption of representative government.
But Obama has already refused to comply with acts of Congress on various other issues. In 2009, the Department of Justice announced it would end raids on marijuana dispensaries, a move which was in line with one of Obama’s early promises to federally decriminalize marijuana. (The Obama administration recently stepped up enforcement of marijuana laws by reinstating the raids.) Earlier this year, the DOJ also said it would stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, a law prohibiting the federal government from legally recognizing gay marriages. Then in March, the administration put a hold on deportation cases involving gay couples, an act which worked against laws passed by Congress concerning both immigration and gay marriage. Clearly, the Obama White House doesn’t feel too beholden to its constitutional duty to carry out laws passed by Congress.
As the interviewees in the FRONTLINE special articulate, President Obama thought that by toughening his stance on immigration he could convince Republicans to work with him on immigration reform. That’s yet to happen, and in the meantime, Obama keeps deporting more and more individuals and is left looking like a hardliner on immigration.
Some immigrant advocates are calling for an end to all deportations and complete amnesty to all of the 11 million illegal immigrants living in this country. I and many progressives I know – including some undocumented citizens – aren’t asking as much from the president. We and members of Congress like Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and Illinois Congressman Luis Gutíerrez only ask that President Obama and the Department of Homeland Security stick to their August memo, which stated that the administration would only deport serious offenders and threats to security. We have yet to see this new policy implemented.
The Obama administration needs to stop carrying out such a conservative policy on immigration, especially if it doesn’t agree with such a policy. Obama’s approval rating among Latinos now hovers just under 50 percent, down from 60 percent as recently as January. If the president fails to respond to the plight of the Latino community and the vast majority of the Democratic base that also don’t agree with Obama’s deportation policy, his approval rating could sink even lower. In the worst case scenario, Obama could lose the White House over his immigration policy.
We Latinos may understand why Obama has yet to pass comprehensive immigration reform as he promised he would, but we refuse to forgive him for his continued assault on the immigrant community.
In 2007 Hector Luis Alamo, Jr co-founded an online blog, YoungObservers.blogspot.com, and has contributed regularly to the site since then. From December 2010 to May 2011, Hector was Opinions Editor for UIC’s Chicago Flame. In April 2011, he became a regular contributor for Hispanically Speaking News. Hector has a B.A. in history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where his departmental concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.