Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Obama’s Enforcement: What Now for Immigration?

Reading Time: 7 minutes[i]A review of four new books exploring immigration in the U.S.: [/i]A Nation of Emigrants[i] by David Fitzgerald; [/i]Blockading the Border and Human Rights[i] by Timothy J. Dunn; [/i]Illegal, Alien, or Immigrant[i] by Lina Newton; and [/i]Keeping Out the Other[i] edited by David C. Brotherton and Philip Kretsedemas.[/i]
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Last December, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published an end-of-the-year fact sheet in which it listed its successes under then-President George W. Bush in advancing a number of strategic goals, the first of which was entitled “Protecting Our Nation from Dangerous People.” The first achievement cited under this rubric was that it had “turned the tide against illegal migration to the United States,” by building fencing along the southern border, expanding the Border Patrol and carrying out “unprecedented” immigration enforcement operations.

Also under the “Dangerous People” heading, the department reported that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had “completed more than 1.1 million naturalization applications,” and that customs and border agents had “apprehended more than 1,020,438 people [sic], including 200 people with serious criminal records.”

This summation of the Bush administration’s accomplishments concisely expresses the transformation since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks of the federal government’s paradigm for immigration. U.S. immigration authorities no longer employ any terms invoking the American Dream, that narrative of striving newcomers who bring unique talents and boundless enterprise to the national mix. Instead, even successful naturalization applicants now come under the category of “dangerous people,” who presumably have been neutralized as threats to national security by being converted into U.S. citizens.

After September 11, Bush subsumed immigration under his counter-terrorism strategy and, in his final two years, adopted an approach that rested primarily on enforcement against illegal immigration. The crackdown started in 2006, but it became the leading edge of the Bush policy after his bill for comprehensive immigration reform crashed in Congress in June 2007. With at least 323,000 foreigners deported last year, according to official figures, the crackdown became the most intense immigration enforcement since the mass expulsions of Operation Wetback in 1954.

Yet despite the counterterrorism emphasis and the enforcement campaign, the number of undocumented immigrants in the country did not substantially decline. According to DHS’s estimate, in January 2007 there were about 11.8 million illegal immigrants in the United States.* Jeffrey S. Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, reached almost exactly the same estimate.

Now come four books, written or edited by scholars, that provide a wealth of history about the ups and downs of U.S. immigration enforcement; about the brisk evolution of the terms used to demonize immigrants in political debates over reform; and about Mexico’s largely ineffective efforts to manage the northward rush of its workers.

A Nation of Emigrants, by David Fitzgerald, a sociology professor at the University of California, San Diego, is a broadly researched but tightly argued account of the Mexican side of the immigration cycle, too often overlooked in debate on the U.S. side. Mexico is the behemoth in the current crisis: about 11.7 million Mexicans make up 31 percent of the foreign-born people now living in the United States, overwhelming other national groups. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, about seven million Mexicans lack legal status and more than 80 percent of Mexicans who arrived in the last decade are here unlawfully. Yet discussion of the crackdown has been dominated by the assumptions of neo-nativist proponents like Pat Buchanan and former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, who say that Mexico has always been pleased to see its workers depart through a border escape valve. For them the flow of migrants serves only to relieve social pressure on the Mexican government and to save political leaders from the responsibility of development.

Starting with field work in a Mexican village, Fitzgerald examines Mexico’s attempts to exert control over the mass exodus of many of its best workers. He recalls Mexico’s actions during the Bracero Program (from 1942 to 1964) to hold back workers, to ensure that its economy did not lack for labor, and also to gain leverage in negotiations with Washington for better working conditions for the migrants. He records an episode in early 1954 when U.S. border agents nearly did battle with Mexican troops to clear the way for Mexican farm workers to come through—a remarkable contrast to the situation today. “As Mexican troops clashed with thousands of rioting workers attempting to cross the border illegally,” he writes, “U.S. immigration officials welcomed successful crossers and sent them on to the fields.”

After the Bracero Program and through the 1990s, Fitzgerald writes, Mexico followed Washington’s lead in adopting a non-policy that “tacitly accepted illegal immigration.” The U.S. saw little reason to curb immigration or reinstate a formal guest worker program “so long as undocumented immigrants met U.S. labor demand.” Mexico’s emigration management generally failed, he finds, because it was never a match for the power of U.S. border policy, whether laissez-faire or restrictive. In recent years Mexico has shifted, allowing its citizens to hold dual nationality and seeking to channel remittances into productive investments. But, Fitzgerald concludes, Buchanan’s warnings that Mexico’s policies pose a threat to U.S. sovereignty are “exactly wrong.”

The dominance of U.S. policy at the border is revealed in Blockading the Border and Human Rights, Timothy J. Dunn’s encyclopedic history of border control operations in El Paso, Texas. In sometimes repetitive detail that will nonetheless be fascinating to border buffs, Dunn recounts the story of Operation Blockade, a “drastic departure” initiated in 1993 that permanently altered U.S. border strategy. It shifted the Border Patrol away from defensively nabbing illegal crossers after they had arrived, to a policy that used show-of-force tactics and fences to deter illegal entry in urban areas, driving migrants into remote rural terrain.

The new strategy, conceived by then-Border Patrol chief Silvestre Reyes, won enthusiastic support in El Paso because it deployed border agents squarely against Mexicans crossing illegally, reducing the agents’ harassment of local Mexican-Americans. Former President Bill Clinton’s administration expanded the strategy across the border. But, Dunn writes, immigration officials did not anticipate that Mexican workers, pushed into deserts and mountains, would risk the perilous trek anyway. From 1994 to 2007, some 4,600 border crossers died in the passage.

Silvestre Reyes was elected to the House of Representatives in 1996 and remains there today. His approach, as Dunn describes it, offers an instructive comparison with that of the Bush administration after it was ordered by Congress in 2006 to build nearly 700 miles (1,127 kilometers) of border fence. Former Secretary Chertoff, using sweeping powers that Congress bestowed, waived some 30 environmental and other regulations, alienated officials in cities all along the Texas border, and offended Mexico. “Even many Border Patrol officers opposed the wall,” Dunn writes, “preferring more agents instead.”

While border enforcement has generally become far more effective in the last 16 years, the United States still confronts the overriding security dilemma that, as Dunn puts it, “those who pose some significant security risk will be intermixed among hundreds of thousands of labor migrants and refugees who pose no threat.” He believes the El Paso experience offers a “strong security rationale” for a policy to reduce illegal immigration through “increased legal immigration opportunities to meet U.S. labor needs.”

The volume edited by David C. Brotherton and Philip Kretsedemas, both sociologists, moves away from the border to examine “the shift towards an enforcement paradigm” within the United States, especially as it affected Muslims and other non-Latino immigrants after September 11.

In one article, Mark Dow, a journalist, traces the legal origins of the confinement of suspected terrorists at the Guantánamo prison camp to the earlier treatment of Haitian refugees and Cubans from the Mariel boatlift. Some of the worst excesses these essays record, such as the mandatory registration of Muslim immigrants after 9/11, were dropped during the Bush administration. But the editors argue that the immigration system, with the new security overlay, works to find more ways to exclude newcomers rather than welcome them, and to force legal immigrants into illegality. They see an emerging “tiered system of rights,” with American citizens enjoying irrevocable rights while non-citizen immigrants have a tenuous legal status that can “always be called into question.”

In Illegal, Alien, or Immigrant, Lina Newton, a political scientist, analyzes changing depictions of “deserving” and “undeserving” immigrants in congressional debates since 1986, in a text that is mainly for political theorists. She usefully shows how a surge in anti-immigrant sentiment among California voters in the mid-1990s combined with the national push for welfare reform to create a new negative archetype, that of the immigrant freeloader, enemy of the taxpayer. It’s an image that haunts the debate to this day.

These books illuminate some of the complexities that President Barack Obama faces as he weighs what to do about immigration. Border cooperation with Mexico on the issue reached a low ebb. Factory raids frightened immigrant communities, but recent surveys by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Migration Policy Institute, both non-partisan groups, suggest that raids have been less effective at forcing illegal immigrants to depart than job losses resulting from the recession. The angry debate over immigration has subsided, but it would doubtless re-ignite if President Obama began a push for comprehensive reform.

The new President’s larger task is to restore the balance in the immigration paradigm, reorienting the system so that it keeps dangerous people out but also returns to its essential function of welcoming immigrants in. For this, the new administration can actually build upon some elements of Bush’s legacy.

Despite all the shouting about the fence, there is considerable support among Americans, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, for effective border enforcement. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has nearly completed the 670 miles (1,078 kilometers) of showy and costly physical barriers required by Congress, freeing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to take a more pragmatic approach, working with border communities, to secure the 2,000-mile (3,219-kilometer) southern line. CBP has spent nearly $1 billion to build a “virtual fence” of cameras and sensors that has been plagued with technological problems.

Napolitano, drawing on her experience as governor of Arizona, has said that both fences and sensors can be appropriate in the right places, and she ordered a review that could yield a less spectacular but more practical plan. DHS will spend $720 million of the economic stimulus money on long-neglected improvements at ports of entry, which will help to sharpen inspectors’ scrutiny but also to facilitate travel and trade. Meanwhile, the mayhem that feuding Mexican drug traffickers have brought to the borderlands has forced Mexico and Washington to intensify their dialogue.

There is also bipartisan support for enforcement inside the country to discourage illegal migration. Despite calls for a moratorium from immigrant advocates, the Obama administration cannot be expected to abandon workplace raids. But officials have said they will target their actions more closely on employers who base their business model on exploiting unauthorized immigrant workers. Napolitano has made it clear that she wants to avoid traumatic round-ups, while Hilda Solis, the pro-union Labor Secretary who is the daughter of Latino immigrants, has pledged to step up enforcement of labor standards.

A tilt toward greater recognition of immigrants’ rights will buy President Obama some time, but not a lot, before he has to confront the crisis of millions of illegal immigrants. While Jeffrey Passel’s recent surveys suggest that border enforcement, coupled with the recession, is dissuading immigrants from coming, years of field research by Wayne Cornelius, Douglas Massey and others have shown that in the absence of legal migration channels, border enforcement also deters those here from going home. As the recession deepens, more unauthorized immigrant workers are leaving as they lose jobs. But millions are hunkering down, clinging to low-wage work and retreating from community life. The economic collapse has made it far more difficult for President Obama to propose immigration reform, and also far more problematical for him to postpone it.

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