This weekend, President Obama again pushed away the issue of immigration. Despite growing pressure to take executive action to curtail deportations, Obama again swept the lives of millions of immigrants off this fall’s agenda—enraging advocacy groups by heeding his party’s fears of angering right-wing voters before key mid-term elections.
But while politicians dismiss immigration as a third rail, they cruelly ignore the fact that another major election issue, the economic woes plaguing workers, is also an immigration issue.
With Congress paralyzed on immigration reform, Obama has mulled taking some form of executive action to provide deportation relief and work authorization for the undocumented. Obama has already created a template for such a move with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, issued two years ago to provide temporary protection from deportation to undocumented students and military members.
There’s a basic moral imperative to expand the deportation reprieve to the older family members of the youth who qualify for Deferred Action. Right-wingers will no doubt stoke fears that the country will be overrun by hordes of cheap labor. But racist canards about “border security” mask the real injustice at stake. In order for any worker to be fully empowered and protected at work, labor and immigration policy must ensure equal rights across the workforce, including—and especially—the immigrants working the most exploitative jobs.
According to the Center for American Progress, even temporary work permits would help bring more immigrants into the “above ground” economy and “increase the earnings of undocumented immigrants by about 8.5 percent as they are able to work legally and find jobs that match their skills.” A reprieve for immigrants with at least five years’ residency, allowing nearly 10 million people to stay in the United States, “would increase payroll tax revenues…by $44.96 billion over five years.”
But aside from the economic rationale for executive action, the government has, at the bare minimum, an ethical obligation to keep embattled immigrant families intact, by providing relief, at least temporarily, from the threat of forced exile. You can’t calculate the social opportunity cost of living under the terror of detention and deportation.