What to Expect In Obama’s 2nd Term – Small Steps at Immigration Reform

President Obama at his Chicago victory rally. (Photo: Flickr/wchinews)

President Obama won another four years in the White House despite the economic head winds, thanks to tenacious campaign staff members, tireless volunteers, long-viewed voters, and a solid coalition of immigrants, communities of color, women, LGBTs, young people, and working class whites.

These various constituencies will no doubt hold the president accountable but they will also work closely with him at achieving the changes that remain to be accomplished.

Comprehensive immigration reform is a promise made twice over that will have to be kept if the Democrats want to keep the Latino vote in 2016. The Obama administration will also have to address the situation of 11 million unauthorized immigrants beyond indiscriminate deportation, prosecutorial discretion, and deferred action.

Republicans can no longer be obstructionists or pawns of fringe elements in their party. They need to learn that whileLatinos and other immigrants share the same bread and butter concerns of most Americans, they also care about friends and family who have been demonized by GOP candidates and talking heads. The Republican Party has to find a way other than tokenism to make communities of color believe that they have a place in the starkly White tent.

But can and will comprehensive immigration reform be achieved? While I believe in the president’s and Democratic party’s commitment to immigrants, the realities of our country’s fiscal and economic problems, foreign policy quagmire, and ossified partisanship make me think that major reform is a pipe dream.

What will pass during the next Obama term are smaller legislation that deal with the demand for high-skilled workers and agricultural labor. The DREAM Act also has a strong chance of finally passing both houses of Congress. These are bites our elected officials can take and the general public can stomach.

It is painfully apparent that our immigration system needs to be fixed and that the immigrant vote can no longer be ignored. Will Republicans loosen the grip of fringe elements in their party and collaborate with Democrats and the president?

Immigrant communities and their allies are watching with 2016 in mind.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, November 7, 2012.

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Evangelicals Are Polarizing the Immigrant Rights Movement

Latin Evangelical Immigration Services

Latinos are a rapidly growing population in Evangelical churches and have led Christian groups to embrace immigration reform. (Photo: Kent Kanouse/flickr)

Latinos are a rapidly growing population in evangelical churches and have led many Christian groups to embrace immigration reform. The groups mean well, but they pose a danger of fracturing the immigrant rights alliance.

The Evangelical Immigration Table, which counts more than 150 influential evangelical leaders among its ranks, is openly making immigration reform a priority. The group came to Washington on Tuesday to release a set of principles for reform meant to spur Congress into action. They had strong words:

Our national immigration laws have created a moral, economic and political crisis in America. Initiatives to remedy this crisis have led to polarization and name calling in which opponents have misrepresented each other’s positions as open borders and amnesty versus deportations of millions. This false choice has led to an unacceptable political stalemate at the federal level at a tragic human cost.

The group calls for a bipartisan immigration solution which treats immigrants with dignity while upholding the rule of law and ensuring national security.

“There are not many things that a group of evangelical leaders this diverse can agree on when it comes to public policy,” Jim Wallis, President and CEO of Sojourners said. “The unity we have found around these principles for comprehensive immigration reform is unprecedented. Many Christians are weary of the political polarization in Washington D.C. these days, and are ready to come together around biblically based and common sense solutions that cut across traditional political boundaries.”

One would think that long-time advocates of immigration reform would welcome the evangelicals—who have powerful allies in Congress—into the movement’s fold. The National Immigration Forum, which has sought “practical solutions for immigrants and for America,” for three decades certainly has.

But the evangelicals are getting push-back from others in immigrant rights movement. Immigration Equality, a national organization fighting for equality under U.S. immigration law for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and HIV-positive individuals has expressed disappointment with National Immigration Forum’s embrace of the Evangelical Immigration Table. In particular, Immigration Equality is alarmed by one fundamentalist organization among the evangelical coalition, Focus on the Family.

“As an organization dedicated to building a coalition for immigration reform that includes all families, we are dismayed by the decision [of National Immigration Forum] to embrace an out-of-step organization like Focus on the Family,” said Rachel B. Tiven, Immigration Equality’s executive director.

“Many religious denominations and people of faith support fully inclusive immigration reform. Focus on the Family, however, is neither a church nor a denomination. It is a divisive political organization with a disturbing history of advocating exclusion – including the exclusion of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people – from the progress of our country. Those exclusionary principles are exactly the opposite of what our immigration movement should be embracing,” Tiven said.

Immigration Equality is concerned that this development will jeopardize LGBT immigrant families whose inclusion in any comprehensive immigration reform effort has long been considered as non-negotiable by leading immigrant advocates and lawmakers. It is a concern I share as a gay foreign-born spouse.

Although the Evangelical Immigration Table has as one of its principles the protection of “the unity of the immediate family,” I expect some, if not most, of these new “allies” not to fight for the dignity and worth of LGBT immigrant families like mine. I expect Focus on the Family and others to insist that LGBT families be thrown under the bus.

As Steve Ralls, Immigration Equality’s communications director points out, Focus on the Family “has been almost singularly focused in attacking LGBT families and women.” He adds that groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center have been critical of Focus on the Family’s anti-gay advocacy and have branded the fundamentalist organization as a hate group.

At a time when unity among immigrant advocates is crucial, Focus on the Family and other fringe groups can easily sow discord.

“The organization is polarizing on Capitol Hill and is better known for burning bridges than building them,” Ralls said.  “It is simply, in our view, a strategic blunder on the part of the National Immigration Forum to embrace a group that is so polarizing among lawmakers and families at a time when building consensus and inclusion is so important if we are going to secure reform legislation that helps as many families as possible.”

I am all for coalition-building, especially at a time when so many voices are stifled by money and influence. But fundamentalist groups like Focus on the Family are insidious and dangerous. Rather than help advance comprehensive immigration reform, they will derail the cause.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds and the Huffington Post.

Net Zero Migration Still Leaves 11 Million Unauthorized Immigrants

Travel agency in Jackson Heights

A storefront in Jackson Heights, NY advertises a remittance service for Mexican immigrants. (Photo: John Rudolph)

It appears that a million Mexicans have left the United States and have not been replaced, resulting in what immigration expert Douglas Massey calls “net zero” migration, a first in half a century.

Massey and his team at the Mexican Migration Projectreport that the number of unauthorized immigrants fell from 12 to 11 million during the Great Recession and that people crossing the border without papers have not replaced those who left. These findings are corroborated by a study of Mexican census data that shows a million Mexicans returned from the U.S. between 2005 and 2010.

Migrants have left the United States due to shrinking demand for their labor, tighter border security, and the stress of living in states that have criminalized their very existence. Mexicans have also been lured home by opportunities and a better quality of life in Mexico.

While this might be good news for those who desire fewer foreigners in their midst and ammo for those who oppose the administration’s strident border enforcement and deportation policies, the fact remains that there are still 11 million immigrants without legal status – what do our lawmakers propose we do with those who have chosen to remain in the country in spite of the economy and anti-immigrant sentiment?

Both sides of the aisle have suggested measures that address one aspect of immigration reform: varied incarnations of the DREAM Act, more visas for high skilled and agricultural workers, and special dispensation for wealthy foreigners and the Irish. None of these will address the question of 11 million unauthorized immigrants.

The only solution is comprehensive immigration reform which includes a rational and fair path to citizenship for immigrants who are here unlawfully. No one from either party will touch this right now but perhaps after November, the president – whoever that might be – and Congress will finally address our immigration problem, once they’re done pandering for votes.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, April 12, 2012.

The Important Work Low-Skilled Immigrants Do

Migrant farm workers in Virginia

Migrant workers from Mexico picking cucumbers in Virginia. (Photo: Bread for the World/Flickr)

It’s far easier to argue for immigration policies that favor high-skilled immigrants over those that prioritize low-skilled immigrants. After all, who wouldn’t want the best and the brightest? In a rapidly changing world, we are anxious about our country’s economic viability so we nod in agreement when politicians call for more scientists and engineers from overseas—lest we are left in the dust by China and India.

The reality is that we need both high and low-skilled workers. The rotting crops in states that scared off immigrant farmworkers with their draconian immigration laws highlights the fact that most Americans could not survive back-breaking agricultural labor. Others won’t deign to perform what they consider menial work.

The Brookings Institution recently released a report that articulates the need for immigrant workers of varied skill sets.

“The U.S. population is aging rapidly as the baby boom cohort enters old age and retirement. As a result, the labor force will increasingly depend upon immigrants and their children to replace current workers and fill new jobs.”

The place of low-skilled immigrants in our economic system is laid out plain and simple in the report.

As Americans become more educated, immigrants meet the subsequent demand for lower-skilled workers. These newcomers tend to work in certain industries, namely, private households, the accommodation sector, agriculture, food services, and construction. They are also over-represented in the fastest growing occupations, which include specialized construction workers and home health and personal care aides.

As politicians and other policy makers weigh whatever little action they could make to address the country’s dilapidated, sputtering, and patched-up immigration system, they should acknowledge that we need immigrants both in our research labs and in our fields. Legislation that solely addresses our desire for high-skilled foreign workers will not meet the needs of the American economy.

Of course it would be great if they could enact comprehensive immigration reform, but we all know that’s not going to happen.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, March 22, 2012.

In State of the Union, President Obama Lowers Expectations on Immigration

President Obama giving his 2012 State of the Union Address

President Obama giving his 2012 State of the Union Address

President Obama once again called for comprehensive immigration reform during his State of the Union address Tuesday, stressing that his administration has done more on border enforcement than previous administrations.

I believe as strongly as ever that we should take on illegal immigration.  That’s why my administration has put more boots on the border than ever before.  That’s why there are fewer illegal crossings than when I took office.  The opponents of action are out of excuses.  We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now.

We should, but we’re not.

Obama recognizes, like most Americans, that “nothing will get done in Washington this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after that, because Washington is broken.” He knows that Congress will not pass an expansive bill which tackles all problems afflicting the country’s immigration system, especially one that includes a path to citizenship for millions of unauthorized immigrants. Not in this current Congress or the next.

He therefore proposed smaller steps, alluding to the DREAM Act which passed the House but failed in the Senatea little over a year ago.

But if election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let’s at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, defend this country.  Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship.  I will sign it right away.

There is, after all, some sympathy for undocumented youth who were brought to the United States as children without their consent. Gallup reports that Americans generally favor rather than oppose the DREAM Act.

Obama’s State of the Union was largely a “dream” speech. The chances of comprehensive immigration reform happening is practically nil. Less ambitious bills that favor undocumented youth, high-skilled foreign workers, and agricultural laborers are a little more likely to pass, and the President would sign them.

Everyone agrees that the immigration system is broken but there is and will be no stomach for a major overhaul. Smaller pieces are more palatable and feasible.

The immigration system will change but true to its history and the messy reality of legislation, it will be through patchwork efforts.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, January 25, 2012. Reposted as “Goodby Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Hello Incrementalism” on WNYC It’s A Free Country, January 26, 2012.

Why Latinos Are Not Into Obama

President Barack Obama Approval Ratings by Race (Gallup)

President Barack Obama Approval Ratings by Race. (via Gallup)

The president has been calling on Latinos and he’s learning that they’re just not that into him.

Gallup’s latest polls show President Obama getting his lowest monthly job rating since taking office. Only four in ten approve of his job performance. The polls also reveal a precipitous decline in his approval among Latinos, a bad omen for Mr. Obama and his party who rely heavily on the community for votes. Just last January, 60 percent of Latinos said Mr. Obama was doing a fine job. Now, less than half – 48 percent – assess his performance favorably.

This should not come as a surprise for the man who once promised si se puede!

He has not delivered on his promise to reform the immigration system and comprehensive reform was not made a legislative priority. The President could not even make headway with the DREAM Act, one of the least toxic immigration initiatives. His administration is on track to deport more unauthorized immigrants during his first term than either of George W. Bush’s two terms. The desperation on the administration’s part to prove its law enforcement bona fides to conservatives has allowed immigration opponents to frame the debate.

It’s disappointing.

The tough economic times has not done Mr. Obama any favors either. Latinos, like most of us, are hurting, but they are hurting much more. The unemployment rate among Latinos is 11.3 percent, two points higher than whites. The poverty rate for Latinos in 2010 is 26.6 percent, 15.5 points higher than the national average and 16.6 points higher than whites. The median household wealth among Latinos plummeted 60 percent from 2005 to 2009; it only fell 16 percent among white households whose household wealth is 18 times that of their Latino neighbors.

No doubt the president and his party will keep on calling, meeting with Latino leaders, promising they still can and will deliver, but how can they really convince anybody considering their track record? Anything they say rings hollow and it is too late to do anything to change minds already made.

Republicans have also been calling, but Latinos hear loud and clear the anti-immigrant rhetoric that drowns any GOP offers to the Latino community.

The bad news for the president and both parties is that many Latinos will  sit 2012 out.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, September 20, 2011. Reposted on WNYC It’s a Free Country, September 23, 2011.

Obama Administration Signals DREAMer Reprieve

dream act activistOn Thursday Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano sent a letter to 22 Senators and White House Intergovernmental Affairs Director Cecila Muñoz issued a statement, both in essence saying that undocumented children and youth as well as others not deemed to be serious criminal threats will not be deported.

Napolitano’s letter announced that the Obama Administration has established a new process for handling deportation cases of DREAM Act-eligible students and other individuals.

The process calls for a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Justice (DOJ) working group to develop specific criteria to identify low-priority removal cases that should be considered for prosecutorial discretion. These criteria will be based on the “Morton Memo” which explains how ICE personnel should use their time, energy and resources in deporting undocumented immigrants and lists the “positive factors” that should be taken into consideration when deciding who should be deported.

These factors favor individuals who have lived in the U.S. since childhood, minors, the elderly, pregnant and nursing women, victims of serious crimes, veterans and members of the armed services, and individuals with serious disabilities or health problems. The working group will also develop a process for reviewing the 300,000 cases pending before immigration and federal courts that meet these specific criteria.

Cases scheduled for a hearing within the next couple of months and all 300,000 pending cases will be reviewed individually by ICE attorneys. These cases will be closed except in extraordinary circumstances, where the reviewing attorney must get the approval of a supervisor to move forward. Individuals whose cases are closed will be able to apply for certain immigration benefits, including work authorization. All applications for benefits will also be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Muñoz’s statement explained that this new strategy was developed

“to make sure we use those resources [that Congress gives the Executive Branch] in a way that puts public safety and national security first. If you were running a law enforcement agency anywhere in the world, you would target those who pose the greatest harm before those who do not. Our immigration enforcement work is focused the same way.”

This is welcome news. If the new process is fully and properly implemented, then DREAMers and other individuals whose cases meet the criteria outlined in the Morton Memo will no longer fear separation from their loved ones and adopted country.

Many questions remain however. Aside from work authorization, what other immigration benefits will be afforded to those whose cases have been dismissed? Will undocumented students be eligible for federal student loans?  What about the the millions of others who are not in deportation proceedings?

Comprehensive immigration reform would once and for all solve the many problems that beset our immigration system. But this is nonetheless a step in the right direction.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, August 19, 2011. Reposted on WNYC, It’s a Free Country.