Obama Rushes to the Right on Immigration

By Seth Freed Wessler May 27, 2010

When President Obama announced his plan on Monday to send 1,200 National Guard troops to "secure" the U.S.-Mexico border, he no doubt thought he was putting money down on immigration reform. The problem is that thus far in our sordid immigration history, attempts to trade tough enforcement tactics for votes on an immigration reform bill have saddled us with the terrible system we’ve got: a massively disproportionate immigration enforcement apparatus and no way for undocumented immigrants to get papers. Obama’s decision to "secure the border first" may leave us with nothing good at all and a whole lot more hardship for immigrants. We’ve never had a more robust set of laws, policies and practices dedicated to apprehending, detaining and deporting immigrants. Last year, the U.S. government deported almost about 390,000 people, more than ever before in U.S. history. We’re on track to deport even more this year. We also continued to pour money into the border. In Obama’s first year, the budget for border patrol was larger than it’s ever been. Indeed, last year we spent $10.1 billion on border patrol — an 82 percent increase from just 5 years earlier, according to a report released by the Migration Policy Institute. And the number of border patrol officers increased at a similarly fast rate. We’ve so heavily invested in the border that Janet Napolitano, the Secretary of Homeland Security, who’s no progressive when it comes to immigration policy, said the border is "as safe as it’s ever been." There’s no doubt that recent violence in Mexican border cities has changed the discussion and driven calls for increased border security, but violence in the border region is not the same as immigration. Indeed, the nationality of the the person suspected of killing a rancher near the border is not known, yet the incident has animated the border discussion. Obama’s commitment to appearing tough on immigration, cynically, is meant to get us closer to a law that will open a pathway to status for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. The problem with this approach though is that there’s simply no guarantee that we’ll get that law — indeed, it’s all but dead this session — and if an immigration law does not pass, all we’ll have is the stick without the carrot. This is exactly what happened last time lawmakers and advocates attempted to trade enforcement for an immigration bill, back in 2007. The mounting crisis that immigrant communities are now confronted by — arrest, deportation, increased local enforcement, racial profiling and denial of workplace rights — is a direct result of an attempt three years ago by Democrats and liberal advocates to pass an immigration bill by agreeing to crack down on undocumented workers and "criminals." The workplace raids that scoured communities under Bush, the mass deportations that continue today, the growing 287g and Secure Communities programs that give local cops the power to enforce immigration laws, the relegation of millions to work and live in the shadows — these are all happening because liberals and progressives let it happen, because it was believed that the only way to pass comprehensive immigration reform was to look tough. Here’s the thing: conservatives want an enforcement-only approach to immigration. They’d like to see us round everyone up and deport them. They’d like to see the border militarized even further; they’d like to deny citizenship to the U.S. citizen children of immigrants. Liberals, on the other hand, want an immigration bill that opens a pathway for undocumented folks to gain status. But they’re convinced that the only way to get there is to give in to conservative demands and succumb to conservative frames. As Gabriel Arana over at the American Prospect has shown, even "progressive" players like the Center for American Progress argue that we need to first secure the border and then move on to making a better immigration policy. But by moving in this direction, those who want a more just immigration policy feed into the racial xenophobia and fear that makes the uphill battle of passing an immigration law into a climb up a sheer cliff. As long as immigrants are a deemed a problem and demonized as criminals and leeches, and as long as immigration is talked about like it’s a matter of national security rather than an economic and social fact that requires ethical and realistic policy, we’re unlikely to see an immigration bill passed at all. In announcing his decision to send 1,200 soldiers to the border, Obama is making clear he’s chosen to continue down this failed path. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)