Since 2001 the Bush administration has deported more than a million people–including 349,041 individuals in the fiscal year ending just prior to the election. It has resurrected the discredited community sweeps and factory raids of earlier eras, and started sending waves of migrants to privately run jails for crimes like inventing a Social Security number to get a job. Every day in Tucson seventy young people, including many teenagers, are brought before a federal judge in heavy chains and sentenced to prison because they walked across the border.
It’s no wonder that Latinos, Asians and other communities with large immigrant populations voted for Barack Obama by huge margins. People want and expect a change. Ending the administration’s failed program of raids, jail time and deportations is at the top of the list. National demonstrations have called for a moratorium on raids since the summer, and one big reason why Los Angeles turned out so heavily for Obama was the anti-raid encampment and hunger strike in the Placita Olvera, which electrified the city.
But the raids program has been rejected by more than immigrants alone. The election took place as millions of people were losing their jobs and homes. Yet while Lou Dobbs and the talk show hysteria-mongers tried to scapegoat immigrants for this crisis (“What about illegal don’t you understand?”), most voters did not drink the Kool-Aid. In fact, every poll shows that a big majority reject raids and want basic rights and fair treatment for everyone, immigrants included. The political coalition that put Obama into office–African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, women and union families–expects change.
The country needs not just an end to raids but a move away from the policies they’ve been intended to promote. From the beginning, the administration’s enforcement program has been cynically designed to pressure Congress into re-establishing discredited guest-worker schemes called “close to slavery” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, being reminiscent of the old bracero program. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff called these raids “closing the back door and opening the front door.”
At least Chertoff was honest about his intentions. His underlings at Homeland Security, like Julie Myers, head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), tried to pretend that the imprisonment and deportation of abused workers was a form of labor standards enforcement. Meanwhile, actual protection for US wages, working conditions and union rights has been in free fall for eight years. Other Homeland Security officials mendaciously claimed immigrants were a threat to national security, as though imprisoning hungry teenagers or terrorized workers would help a fearful public to sleep at night.
No one whose eyes are open to the terrible human suffering caused by these draconian policies will be very sorry to see Chertoff go. But what policies will take their place, and who will enforce them? So far, the choice of Janet Napolitano is not encouraging. The Tucson “Operation Streamline” court convenes in her home state every day, and the situation of immigrants in Arizona is worse than almost anywhere else.
Napolitano herself has publicly supported most of the worst ideas of the Bush administration, including guest-worker programs with no amnesty for the currently undocumented, and brutal enforcement schemes like E-Verify and workplace raids. But Obama does not have to be imprisoned by the failure of Napolitano to imagine a more progressive alternative. In fact, his new administration’s need to respond to the economic crisis, and to strengthen the political coalition that won the election, can open new possibilities for a just and fair immigration policy.