Excluded and Exploited

US immigration policy fuels economic exploitation and racial segregation. Obama’s executive order does little to change that.

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The White House’s recent executive action on immigration doesn’t change any law or grant anyone citizenship. Yet it’s been hailed by liberal advocates as a victory and “bold” step toward comprehensive reform. Conservatives, meanwhile, have branded the move “unconstitutional” and have threatened to thwart it in court.

In reality, Obama is simply promising to allow some immigrants who “play by the rules” to finally “get right with the law” — under a legal regime built on the systematic abuse of some of the most disenfranchised people on American soil. The measure may provide short-term relief from deportation for millions, but a majority of the undocumented are left out. Their communities will remain under siege from a discriminatory legal system and a xenophobic political establishment.

Obama’s reprieve mirrors the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that since 2012 has offered work authorization and deferral of deportation, renewable every two years to unauthorized immigrants who came as children. The new measure promises similarly limited relief for several million parents of citizens or legal-resident children — on the condition of five or more years of residency, a background check, and payment of taxes — and also expands eligibility for the current DACA program.

The order could temporarily alleviate the threat separation for millions of families in legal limbo (for those who manage to overcome fear and bureaucratic barriers to apply). In 2012, an estimated 16.6 million people nationwide lived in mixed-status households, with one or more undocumented members.

Extending DACA’s protections to parents is a politically safe move, as the program’s roll-out has been relatively smooth, defying conservative fears that chaos would result from “amnesty.” Generally, the hundreds of thousands of young people who have gotten “DACA-mented” have continued attending school and working as they normally would, just with the extra security of knowing they won’t suddenly be shunted into deportation proceedings or fired for lacking papers. A major portion of beneficiaries have reported gains in employment and obtaining basic provisions like bank accounts.

Yet the limits of DACA’s supposed success story were made tragically clear when the White House announced that parents of DACA-mented youth would be excluded from the new reprieve. That is, the administration has cut off the families of the youth who have been propelling the immigrant rights movement with mass protests and civil disobedience actions across the country. The hopes of these youth have been sidelined once again in Obama’s latest “concession” to immigrant advocates, revealing simmering tensions between the reform lobby in Washington and the grassroots mobilization in the streets and at the border.

Noting that his measure isn’t a permanent fix, Obama has called on Congress to pass a long-delayed immigration reform bill. Yet the modest scope of his executive action reveals how arbitrarily the process of “reform” is handled in Washington, whether by legislation or administrative decree.

The arbitrary adjustment of the divide between those who supposedly deserve legal status, and those who somehow don’t, reflects the fundamental irrationality of immigration law — which is based on a tangle of policies that govern contract labor, humanitarian protocols, family-based reunification schemes, and draconian law-enforcement measures.

The executive action also perversely ties “border security” to deportation relief. While it plans to end a program that uses local police to help apprehend undocumented immigrants, the administration will now focus on deporting so-called “criminals” and newly arrived immigrants at the border. But civil-rights groups have historically condemned such enforcement efforts for subjecting non-citizens to brutal policing, denial of due process, and arbitrary detention tactics.

The measure does promise to strengthen some protections for immigrants, such as expanding the use of protective visas for crime victims. But this legal relief is primarily limited to those who manage to report violations, leaving out the millions who remain “deportable” and silenced by fear, and thus extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation as an intrinsic result of their precarious legal status.

And while the relief plan will not allow immigrants to obtain certain benefits like federal healthcare subsidies, they will still have to pay their “fair share” of taxes. In effect, immigrants will be penalized for their exclusion from the regular workforce.

The White House also sweetened the deal for the powerful Silicon Valley lobby by easing the process for importing high-tech workers through specialized employment programs. The program, however, offers no special relief to another key workforce: the farmworkers who stream into the country each year to harvest crops, most of which are Latino immigrants. The imbalanced treatment of tech versus farm labor underscores how immigration policy privileges business interests over worker interests.

In contrast, some grassroots advocates are fighting for a more humane system, demanding a human rights-based migration policy that addresses the structural issues that drive migration, including “free trade” deals and low-wage, temporary “guestworker” programs.

The National Guestworker Alliance, which represents immigrants who work as contract laborers in sectors ranging from housekeeping to forestry, demands an immigration overhaul that elevates the rights of workers so that “legalization” not only means access to work but also to the universal right to organize a union without fear of retaliation.

Similarly, We Belong Together, a coalition focused on immigrant women’s issues, calls for reform that prioritizes the rights of families and respect for the labor of women in all its forms, including work in households and the informal economy. They push immigration policies that condition eligibility for legal status on “proof of work,” which has the side effect of “leaving out millions of women and de-valuing women’s work.”

Obama’s deportation reprieve does not bring justice to the millions of people without papers, who are criminalized for simply trying to live and work with dignity. Until immigration policy takes into account the social, economic, and gendered dynamics of global migration, it will always be a regime of exclusion.

Temporary relief means little when the overarching structure of immigration laws continues to fuel economic exploitation and racial segregation, undermines human rights, and divides communities.