In 2010, we published Consuming Mexican Labor: From the Bracero Program to NAFTA by Ronald L. Mize and Alicia C.S. Swords. With all of the media coverage this summer of events along the US-Mexico border, and with the upcoming midterm elections, we thought it was a good time to provide an update to the material covered in the book. Author Ronald L. Mize contributes the following on immigration reform and moral panic in the United States.
The deflated hopes of immigrant activists and pro-immigrant legislators have again received center-stage attention: this time at the recent Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Awards Gala. Contemporary immigration politics were best summed up by President Obama’s response to an audience member calling on him to stop the deportations. “I’m going to get to that,” he said.
Comprehensive immigration reform is something that Washington has promised to “get to” since the Bush II era, even though a very broken US immigration system has not received serious reform since 1986.
The recent high profile events along the US-Mexico border have given journalists and political opportunists the moral panic they so desire to increase their ratings and raise fodder for the 2014 midterm election campaigns.
Earlier this summer, US media consumers were introduced to a new label that immigration governance regimes have been deploying for several years now: “unaccompanied minors.” Many youth (some estimates exceed 50,000) fled poverty and violence in Central America and entered the United States. Ages varied, but the main story focused on the fact that children, increasingly 12 or under, were traveling without parents or other adults. Not a new story to immigration experts, but the size of the population created a great deal of controversy that was fueled by conservative news media characterizations of Obama’s failed policies, policies that supposedly made it attractive for children to leave their families and take advantage of US social services. One Fox News report characterized the South Texas border as an “endless wave of illegal immigrants” and then went on to identify an unnamed source, saying many were disease ridden.
The wave of anti-immigrant hysteria and ensuing moral panic peaked in July as coverage of a bus load of unaccompanied minors were met by protestors in Murrieta, California, where hatred was given voice when a white mob turned on a bus transporting Central American minors to a detention facility. The juxtaposition of very young children being met by angry adults blocking entry to a detention facility illustrated the ugliest of anti-immigrant fomentation and signaled for many a death knell for “compassionate conservatism.” Nothing short of full-scale immigrant removal, and a closed Southern border, would appease this far Right bloc.
Let’s make something perfectly clear: nobody with power in Washington is going to “get to that” if the goal is to get at the root of the problem and offer an actual solution to the immigration morass. We have a system, using criteria established in 1965, which does not reflect the immigrants this nation recruits to do the work Americans are so averse to doing (and are equally dependent upon for their standard of living and way of life). Those two criteria—job skills and family reunification—are the only two reasons for which immigrants are authorized to enter this nation (I’m barring discussions of lotteries and other cumbersome bureaucratic processes that bring miniscule numbers to the ranks of US citizenship).
The only people hurting from Washington’s unwillingness to “get to that” are the millions of dislocated families who have no legitimate pathways to US citizenship, and who face backlogs and wait times now in the decades (so much for reunifying families). If you are David Beckham or a NAFTA corporation executive, the immigration system works. For the millions lacking fame and capital, going to the end of the line is a multi-year process that costs thousands of dollars to navigate. Without the right job skills (i.e. those deemed scarce), or direct family connections, there is simply no way into the current immigration system.
The Obama administration was preparing to take executive action, but was derailed by its own party. The early midterm election strategy was to embarrass a do-nothing Republican House of Representatives and assuage the “Deporter-in-Chief” characterization that Latino and immigrant rights groups have attached to President Obama’s record (he has overseen more deportations than any other president). That strategy resulted in vulnerable Democrats asking the administration to defer action (a Democratic mantra these days) until after the midterm elections so executive action could not be used against them by their Republican challengers.
There is no question that administrative relief is coming and the deportations of those deemed lawful residents will stop by the end of the year, entirely too late for the president to alter the “Deporter-in-Chief” label he has earned for himself. Classes of immigrants will be allowed to regularize their status and start the long road to citizenship. This will be a boon for immigrant service providers and immigration attorneys who, much like in 1986, will do the work of handling the cumbersome paperwork and steering would-be citizens through the bureaucratic process of becoming a US citizen.
Businesses are happy as, by and large, they have figured out the system and are rarely held culpable for “knowingly hiring” undocumented workers. Their absconding of responsibility is coupled with the fact that workplace raids are exceedingly rare. We have an immigration regime where really only one group pays for all the problems in the system, the immigrants themselves. It is immigrants who experience deportations and whose families are ripped apart, who live under the constant fear of not having papers, drive without licenses and insurance, and who work and contribute to the public coffers without being able to secure the benefits US citizens receive as income tax and social security payers. Most undocumented immigrants pay their fair share; they just don’t reap any of the benefits.
Comprehensive immigration reform has become so one-sided that it’s only about more arms and boots on the border (based on a spurious national security-immigration link), Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) relief for a very small number of the overall 11 million undocumented persons residing in the US, and what to do with children fleeing Central America. To this point, it appears only moral panic promoters have swallowed the Obama’s-DACA-created-the-unaccompanied-minor-problem-kool-aid, but expect that storyline to continue as more unaccompanied minors arrive at the border.
The administration will likely go along with more border militarization and criminalization of immigrants as all but a handful of Democrats have conceded to the rabid anti-immigrant Republican line. The administration will probably work to clear the backlog of those seeking to enter the nation and naturalize their status (and no matter what they do to revise implementation and administratively lighten the load on would-be citizens, it will always be labeled “amnesty” by foes). The administration may also tweak temporary worker programs (visas such as H-1B, H-2A, H-2B, J-I, TN NAFTA), but Congress sets the number of entrants for each class.
In Consuming Mexican Labor, we discussed the increasing discursive closure around immigration debates up to 2010. Since then, those boundaries have only narrowed and hardened. In 1986, an anti-discrimination clause was inserted to protect immigrants from employers. Today, thanks to Kansas then-secretary of state, Kris Kobach, who penned SB1070 in Arizona, HB56 in Alabama, and several other “Smoke ‘em out” laws across the United States, we now have over thirty states with discriminatory laws that either racially profile, or impinge on civil liberties of immigrants.
And we know the Roberts Court, which upheld the key part of SB1070 (aka “Driving While Mexican”), will not challenge states on this account. They cite Brignoni v. Ponce in 1975, which allowed federal immigration officials at border checkpoints to use profiling as a basis for detaining those suspected of driving without proper authorization. Our deep history of Black-White race relations makes it clear that unchecked racial profiling by local police give us Ferguson, Missouri; police departments in major cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles (post-Ramparts), and New York (pre-stop and frisk) have adopted very public “we don’t profile” stances.
What about bold action by an administration seeking to leave its mark, its legacy, beyond the Deporter-in-Chief moniker? We have learned that we can expect nothing bold from this administration. But here’s a thought: if we abhor racial profiling let’s finally put Brignoni v. Ponce in the dustbins of history, and no longer give states the authority to enforce a “Driving While Brown” policy.
Let’s end the criminalization of civil infractions (the level of crime constituted by residing in the United States without authorization), and let’s have a bold conversation about how anti-immigrant politicians in the thirty-plus states with racist laws are driving the hatred expressed in Murrieta.
While we’re at it, let’s talk about why, in 2014, we allow federal, state, and locally-authorized immigration enforcers to racially profile anybody who “looks illegal.”
Why did we think discrimination by employers was relevant in immigration law in 1986, but NOBODY is asking about E-Verify, and how it often works to the detriment of Latinos seeking employment by relying on a system that turns up false negatives, is so bureaucratically clunky that it can easily turn into a system of discrimination, and is often used by employers who don’t want to hire any Latinos who they equate with “illegals”?
If there is any question that this immigration enforcement is not a racialized process aimed at anybody who looks Mexican, we should note that we are not turning away Canadians who overstay their visas, nor are we profiling them because they look like “Canadian illegals.”
Ronald L. Mize is Associate Professor of Sociology at Oregon State University, and co-author of Consuming Mexican Labor: From the Braceros Program to NAFTA.