Wednesday, February 25, 2009

While the President Addressed the Nation

Last night President Obama addressed the joint chambers of Congress laying out his administration's priorities for the next year. The entire speech focused on the economy, but emphasized energy, healthcare, and education as the top three areas of focus--all issues that I strongly support.

I was disappointed, however, that President Obama failed to mention immigration even once during his address.

I was even more disappointed that on a day when he calls for the U.S. to take responsibility for its future once more, for its people to join in rebuilding their country, the first worksite raid of the Obama administration took place in Bellingham, Washington.

In their usual militarized and heavy-handed fashion (including the helicopter), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided Yamato Engine Specialists arresting 28 undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

As it appears now, they are attempting to charge these individuals with identity fraud, which--unlike "unlawful presence" or "entry without inspection" --is a criminal offense. This is the same tactic ICE piloted in Postville, Iowa last summer, a tactic that's legality is currently being reviewed by the U.S Supreme Court.

But the first worksite raid of the Obama administration is especially disappointing given that during the campaign last summer Obama said:

"When communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel, when all that is happening, the system just isn’t working, and we need to change it."

At that moment back in July, he seemed to get it. Yet the raid that took place yesterday was no different, three mothers with young children were among those arrested.

And I can't say that Obama doesn't get it now. As I posted last week, when he was on the radio show El Piolín por la mañana, Obama clearly spoke of the need for immigration reform precisely in light of the current state of the economy.

I think he does get it. But as his address to the nation last night showed, it is not currently a priority of the Obama administration. This is problematic for two reasons:
  1. Without reform, raids like that the one that took place yesterday in Bellingham will continue to terrorize our communities, tearing mothers from their children, separating families, placing hardworking members of our communities in detention centers with inadequate standards, and even placing further strain on local economies.
  2. By not prioritizing humane immigration reform, immigration will continue to be a divisive issue used to derail critical initiatives of the administration like healthcare and education.
As we've seen in congressional debates over SCHIP and the Recovery Act, immigration has been an issue which almost causes their failure. What will happen in a debate over universal healthcare if we have not already rectified the status of undocumented immigratants? What about education when hardline anti-immigrant advocates say they don't want money going to schools if it will fund ESL programs?

How will we move forward in what is best for our country without finding a way to include and recognize core members of our communities?

I wish Obama would answer that. Even President Bush left the Whitehouse saying one of his biggest regrets was that he did not push for immigration reform first, before social security reform. I don't want the Obama administration to leave with such regrets. I want change.

But I can say that I am left hopeful by the continued and growing efforts of communities around the country to speak out on the issue of immigration. As we saw last week, over 150 communities nationwide held prayer vigils calling for Congress to act on humane immigration reform. And in April, another national grassroots effort will take place in the form of "Neighbor-to-Neighbor" in-district visits with Congresspeople.

May theirs be the winds of change that move us forward.


  1. One of the few positives of the economic "stimulus" plan was the provision limiting the ability TARP recipients to hire foreign workers over American workers. Drafted by Senators Bernie Sanders and Charles Grassley, the provisions require only that a good faith effort be made to hire American workers over foreign workers, but the increased government scrutiny over the recipients of federal bailout money should give pause to any employer seeking to violate the spirit of this rule. Substantial research has shown that, despite an abundance of well educated domestic talent, employers often seek to hire foreign workers in an attempt to lower labor costs.

  2. Thanks for your comment!

    I think you make a valid point in saying that employers often seek to hire foreign workers in an attempt to lower labor costs.

    I think there are a number of ways to look at this issue though. For one, if we're talking about skilled workers, it is not free to hire foreign workers. An employer must pay a processing fee of about $10,000 to get an H1 visa for a foreign born worker. That doesn't really lower labor costs.

    On the other hand, if we're talking about the frequently voiced concern over undocumented labor or "immigrants taking our jobs" I think it is important to point out that most undocumented workers are in jobs that documented workers don't want.

    Often in the media, and in business for that matter, low-wage workers are pitted against each other through showing factories where immigration raids have taken place with lines of African American workers waiting to get those jobs.

    What needs to be pointed out is that these jobs often have the worst labor conditions of our economy and there is a HUGE turnover rate for these jobs amongst documented workers because of the bad conditions.

    So one approach to addressing this issue would be to reframe the discussion away from immigration and focus instead on labor. If we have progressive and enforceable labor standards--health and safety, fair wages, etc--we can then reduce the turnover of jobs and take away the incentive to exploit and undercut undocumented workers.

    From a labor perspective, we don't want to see jobs being exported or carried out in horrible conditions. But the reality is that we also have a need for immigrants in our economy, as I talked about in my post "How much do you know about immigrants in our economy?"

    I think the question then becomes: how do we create an independent body that is not politically motivated that can determine realistically what the future flows of immigration will be for the U.S.?

    In sum, we want to respect all workers, and to do that we need to enforce labor laws. I don't think we can assume bad intentions on the part of foreign workers.

    At the end of the day, however, to address any of these questions, we need humane and comprehensive immigration reform which will look at these issues holistically.

  3. Children and grandchildren of immigrants frequently tell of how poor their immigrant ancestors were and how the change to their generation could only have come about in America. It is still a place where you can start over, where the past does not prevent you from succeeding. That is the great strength of this country: Obama himself is proof.

    Any immigration policy should recognize that immigrants are our country's greatest strength - not a threat. The few who are "radicalized" here would not be capable of being brain-washed it they were treated as welcome - not presumed terrorists.

    There will always be some bad ones among them. This is no different than people everywhere.