Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Rise, Fall, Rise, and Fall of Comprehensive Immigration Reform

The U.S. Congress has spent a good portion of the first decade of the 21st century debating immigration reform. After the tragic events of September 11, 2001, two acts of Congress significantly tightened the U.S. immigration laws in the name of the “war on terror.” Congress later considered more far-reaching reform legislation. In December 2005, the House of Representatives passed the Sensenbrenner Bill, which included many enforcement-oriented provisions such as criminalizing the mere status of being undocumented, resulting in mass marches in favor of justice for undocumented immigrants. The Senate later passed a more moderate comprehensive immigration reform bill but Congress ultimately failed to enact it into law. The end result was that Congress could only agree to authorize an extension of the fence along the U.S./Mexico border, little more than a gesture at immigration reform.

With the election of President Obama in 2008, some immigrant rights advocates were hopeful about the possibility of passage of comprehensive immigration reform by Congress. While expressing support for comprehensive immigration reform, Senator Obama had supported driver’s license eligibility for undocumented immigrants, and the DREAM Act, which would provide for undocumented college students to regularize their immigration status.

However, the initial optimism about the possibility for immigration reform during the Obama administration has dimmed after the administration’s initial steps on immigration. President Obama appointed Janet Napolitano, the former Governor of Arizona, to head the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; with respect to immigration, she has focused on enforcement, with the promise of future positive improvements for immigrants through immigration reform. One of the latest enforcement moves by President Obama was to send more than a thousand National Guard troops to the U.S./Mexico border. Disparate negative impacts on Latina/os – including but not limited to deaths on the border, increases in human trafficking, and racial profiling -- result from increased border enforcement.

Still, some kind of comprehensive immigration reform continues to be on the minds of some lawmakers. In early 2010, two proposals were on the table in the U.S. Congress, one in the House and one in the Senate. In the summer of 2010, President Obama made a speech in support of comprehensive immigration reform. The fall 2010 midterm elections cooled much interest by members of Congress in immigration reform.

Immigration reform is an important issue to many Latina/os, who voted in large numbers for President Obama, because of the direct and palpable impact on the greater Latina/o community, including many U.S. citizens who are of Latina/o descent. Immigration law and enforcement is viewed by many Latina/os and U.S. citizens as a central civil rights issue, touching deeply on important issues of race and class.

The claim of color-blindness through an expressed desire to simply enforce the U.S. immigration laws, is frequently employed in attempts to avoid addressing the impacts of comprehensive immigration reform, as well as the possible failure of its enactment, on communities of color. We saw the same phenomenon with respect to the disparate racial impacts of the Arizona law, which, it was claimed, simply seeks to enforce the U.S. immigration laws. Color-blindness is an effective rhetorical tool for restrictionists and others to legitimately pursue racial ends, namely to limit immigration from Mexico, as well as Latin America generally and Asia and Africa. Even if one disagrees with the claim of any discriminatory intent, it is clear that the measures have disparate impacts on people of color.


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