Appraising Obama’s 1st year on Immigration Control (part 1)


So, after a year in office, it is time to appraise Obama’s record on immigration control, which I begin in this blog entry, and continue in blog entries to come.   Immigration and border control consist of the border fence at the U.S.-Mexico Border, the virtual fence, a prototype of which exists at the southern Arizona border, surveillance and database programs, detention practices and the federalization of immigration control which gives federal powers to local and state law enforcement.   All of these technologies and programs endanger the rights of immigrants and citizens alike, and have created virtual prisons within Latino communities.

As I documented in my book, Immigration and American Democracy: Subverting the Rule of Law, these technologies coalesced after 9/11 into an almost seamless web of social control. During the Bush Administration a combination of state actors, and prevailing ideologies helped domesticate the War on Terror into a war on immigrants at the border and in ethnic enclaves around the country.  This anti-immigrant pogrom was legitimized by three ideas that held sway over policy in the Bush White House: neo-liberalism; and neo-conservative conceptions of sovereignty; which were accompanied by the privatization of risk management. These ideas manifested themselves in policies that privatized hollowed out immigration control agencies and delegated an inordinate amount of power to private corporations, which in turn operated in the name of immigration authorities. Concurrently decisions by government officials followed the efficiency memes of the market.

In addition, the decisions of both public and private authorities were rarely transparent and decision-makers were rarely held to account because decisions were framed in terms of the doctrine of sovereignty, a concept that allows immigration actors to make life or death decisions in immigration policy and in individual administrative cases with impunity.

These unaccountable decisions followed preemptive strategies that encouraged the actors to criminalize civil and administrative immigration infractions and treat generally law- abiding undocumented immigrants as if they were potential terrorists.  Indeed, in many instances, immigrants were locked away without opportunities to obtain counsel or question the charges against them.

Such was the immigration control modus operandi during the ‘wild west’ days of the Bush Administration.  So, have things changed under Obama?

By the look of Obama’s presidential campaign, the answer should be yes.  Obama ran on a mostly pro-immigrant agenda, and the Latino community voted for him in unprecedented numbers, in several states spelling the difference in the winning margin for Obama against John McCain.  Obama’s life story and even his affect is also pro-immigrant. He’s cosmopolitan, international; urbane; an urban politician, someone raised outside the country; whose father was Muslim; a constitutional law professor with a keen commitment to civil liberties and human rights.

Many of Obama’s supporter’s romanticized Obama’s pro immigrant leanings while also–quite understandably– buying into the campaign’s “hope” meme. When he visited U.S.-Mexico border regions during the campaign, he was greeted by overflowing crowds rife with signs that read “si, se puede.”  Obama’s supporters believed Obama would reverse the Bush course and tear down the border wall; some believed he would help demilitarize the border zone and repeal the ICE 287(g) provision that gives federal immigration enforcement powers to local sheriffs. (He hasn’t)

To his opponents Obama embodies the ‘immigrant-other.’  Their hatred for him evokes the racist beliefs of nativist Know Nothings. This is compounded by the fear Obama evokes in conservative white America that the white man’s vise-like grip on the reigns of power in the country is weakening.  Nativists are incredibly fearful of the census bureau’s estimation that by 2042 whites in the U.S. will not longer comprise a majority.  Obama’s calm, black visage reminds them of this seismic and to them cataclysmic shift in the nation’s demographics and with it the slippage of their sense of national identity and security. Immigrants, and Obama, are thus perceived as threatening a 200+ year legacy of one-race control.  This explains the distortions (lies; ignoring facts and gross exaggerations) in much of the right wing discourse since the inauguration. Since the white-right perceives itself in a death match on the verge of losing its hegemony, nearly everything Obama does is perceived as a threat to its survival.

As heated as the discourse got during the health care debate, it seems fitting to expect things will only get hotter in 2010 during the debate over comprehensive health care reform.

The reality of the first year of the Obama administration, however, is that the right might have little to fear from Obama.  Although some modest gains (from the liberal point of view) were registered in terms of detention practices, and shifting resources from workplace raids to investigating employers, for the most part, Obama has doubled down on some of the more draconian Bush era immigration control policies, and has failed to rebuke others.

When it comes to comprehensive immigration reform, the Administration thus far has refused to get behind the Gutierrez bill, which is likely to be the most progressive CIR package introduced this Congress. Instead, it appears likely that the Administration will or already has gotten behind the Schumer-Graham bill about be released in the Senate. This Senate bill is likely to be significantly more conservative than CIR ASAP. The alternative is that, as we saw with HCR, Obama will come out with a broad set of principles and then let Congress come up with the plan. My guess is Obama will support Schumer or work behind the scenes for Schumer-Graham.

So, how has Obama negotiated the Bush immigration frame (sovereignty-neo-liberalism-privatization of risk)?  Now that a year of the Obama Administration has passed, it is time to translate piecemeal assemblages of policy parts into an understanding of the Administration’s larger vision for immigration control, and along the way, come to grips with Obama’s approach to executive power, relationship between government and markets, and reach an initial conclusion about his Administration’s version of liberalism, a term his campaign pretty much resurrected from the dead.

I shall examine this in blogs to follow.

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